Friday, November 30, 2012

Weekly CD Recommendations 11/30/12

A new series designed to force me through all the 'new' CD's I promised myself I'd listen to since last year. I'm scheduled to catch up to my current list sometime around mid 2015. Probably won't subsume the Friday playlist, but it will be in addition to it.

(out of four)


Gary Clark Jr.: The Bright Lights EP - Four tracks - each as different from one another as the seasons. Echoes of rock’n roll, rock, blues, jazz, hip-hop, and soul bounce off of one another in that manner which reminds you that good musicians borrow, great musicians steal. Like me, Gary Clark was born to one of the first American generations that has too much history, but Clark clearly knows what to do with it. 

Gustavo Dudamel: Bruckner/Sibelius/Nielsen - I am a Dudamel believer. It would be stupid to pretend that he is a mature conductor, and equally so to pretend that all that attention can’t hurt his talent. Like Valery Gergiev before him, Dudamel has an eccentric kind of talent, all the moreso for his hailing from such a remote place to classical music traditions. He will never have a ‘by-the-book’, rigorously intellectual, approach to conducting one gets from Daniel Harding or Vladimir Jurowski. Instead, he is a conductor solely concerned with drawing players and audiences in and inspiring commitment from them. Ultimately this, and not clarity of beat or intellectual rigor, is what separates great conductors from competent ones. For all the enthusiasm of the players, Dudi’s interpretations of four of the greatest symphonies from Northern Europe can be sloppy at the seams. Who cares? Mastery will come with the inevitable re-recordings. As it stands right now, among the conductors of my generation whose performances can leave audiences feeling utterly speechless: so far there’s Gustavo Dudamel, there’s Andris Nelsons, and then there’s everybody else.


Keith Jarrett: Rio - Keith Jarrett is one of those artists who are both amazing and less amazing than they seem. His music is a miracle unique to modern times - fully articulate long-form pieces that are completely improvised at as he plays, with melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are rarely if ever planned in advance at his solo concerts. But if they were not improvised, the albums would be considered decent, rather generic (soft-bop?), and hardly justifying Jarrett’s enormous flights of ego. Like so many members of the first ‘post-Jazz’ generation, he’s nearly as much a classical musician as he is a jazz one, and his music has reflections within it of the Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Shostakovich he’s also recorded. In practice, his music sounds like far more like a mixture of Debussy, Rachmaninov, and Bill Evans - only not as inspired as any of them. To invite such lofty comparisons is not to oversell them. But I never cease to be impressed by how much musical sense Jarrett can get out of so little planning.

Now Ensemble: Awake - Steve Reich meets Mingus. Against this group is the fact that I would not have known that this music was by half-a-dozen different composers had nobody told me. The music would be considered in a uniform style even for a single composer. But the fact remains that this octet of Yale grads found a formula that works pretty brilliantly. This is ‘new new music’, with the foreground between classical and non-classical music increasingly blurred. The counterpoint, the rhythmic drive, and the virtuosity on display here are truly startling, but what ultimately makes it work is the harmonic simplicity of the work in which everything stays on the same patterns (cantus firmus?) and builds truly effectively to climaxes. I haven’t been impressed by the work of a number of composers on this album before, but if they worked as a group for the rest of their career together, they would be superb.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver - The backlash against the hype is completely understandable. The overemphasis on electronics, the pseudo-sensitivity of the lyrics, the annoyingness of fans, etc. But Justin Vernon is a real musician with a real ear. How many songwriters write arrangements this gorgeous, or this fascinating? Justin Vernon should probably just ditch the whole folk rocker act and try to compose something, because he does have real talent for things that are a bit wasted on his genre.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

800 Words: The Melancholy Muckraker - The Original Port Huron Statement

(The original first column I wrote for which my esteemed editor called 'a magnificent torrential tirade of misanthropic glee' while also telling me it was unpublishable. Ah well, but it's too much fun not to post...)

The Melancholy Muckraker

I want to begin this column by saying that the very fact that I’ve agreed to write for this website causes in me a twinge of self-loathing. I’d feel like a whore if I weren’t so desperate to whore myself out in the cause of getting more readers for my other blog ( – read 800 words on it every day and all your dreams will come true).The assignment of the columnists is to write something devoted to social change. Would it be irresponsible of me to write a column on how society should be changed for the worse? I have that power. 

I wish I could say I was alone in that regard, but you too have the power to change society for the worst as well, and you use it far more often than I do. You utilize that ability with every soul-destroying well-intentioned cliché you employ in the name of making the world a better place. Social change, real social change, is unpleasant in the extreme. And yet most people who claim to want affect social change do so as a lifestyle – a way of feeling solidarity, self-congratulation, and creating social clubs as a means of validating their self-images as fighters for the greater good who think for themselves in exactly the same ways as all their friends. It never ceases to amaze me that such people really think they’re making the world a better place rather than a more obnoxious one. Perhaps that social club is their church, or perhaps it’s their food co-op, but the motives of those who say they want social change are usually selfish at best, and occasionally even dangerous. Most people want to affect social change as a way of feeling good, but the process of affecting change is about the most inconvenient and unpleasant ordeal on the planet – every action contains its own anxieties and leads to an ever-increasing series of new anxieties as the ramifications of the change you effect increase exponentially.  As Larry David would say, if you’re one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage.

(John Cleese on extremism)

I’ve met dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of people over the years who would not pass the ‘Cleese Test.’ No doubt there were a number of years of my life when I wouldn’t have either. To be sure, one doesn’t simply pass the test by holding centrist beliefs – you pass it by retaining an independent cast of mind. The problem, fortunately, is not that people shouldn’t insult each other. The problem is that the groupthink of movements gives people the cover they need to act like jackasses while still retaining the illusion that they are good people. Speaking for myself, I have far too much anger in me to see myself as anything but a jackass, but I wear your scorn with a badge of honor. Given that the first thirty years of my life have been rather mediocre – I live alone with my CD’s and books and do very easy work in my father’s business – there is nothing in life from which I derive more pleasure than deflating the illusions of other people’s moral righteousness. It is the one pursuit in my life at which I know I’ve been successful.  

Please think of me as that relative you dread – you know, the one who makes a scene at weddings and ruins every holiday with his soul-deadening criticism of everybody’s life-choices and only associates with the rest of the family so he can make them feel as miserable about their lives as he feels about his. The purpose of this column will be to show the unpleasant, ugly, compromising acts it takes in order to make the world a better place – and how even after we’ve accomplished our long sought-after goal, we still have no idea if we’ve not affected more bad change than good. The name of the column is The Melancholy Muckraker – mostly because I couldn’t call my column Paul Krugman or Savage Love or some other name that would bring many more readers. In short, this column exists to grind your nose in the shit (apologies to Ms. McGarry). If it’s successful, you’ll love to hate me. And who knows, you may thank me later just like you thanked that relative for being the only family member to tell you that you have a drinking problem. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

800 Words: Who is Mohamed Morsi?

In August of this year, a huge deal was made in the press about Mohamed Morsi’s trip to Tehran for the 16th summit of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ so that he could personally hand over the presidency from Egypt to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in Iran. Virtually every policy expert in the world agrees, the Non-Aligned Movement is a colossal waste of time and resources. In 2012, Non-Alignment doesn’t mean anything. Non-Alignment was a policy option for many third and second world governments during the Cold War who didn’t want to be in lock step with the dictates of either the United States or the Soviet Union. Today’s Non-Aligned Movement is for all purposes a ineffective counterweight for all the other countries in the world against the US and the EU. Virtually everybody else (except Israel, of course) is either a member-state or an invited observer.

The visit by the new Egyptian president was seen by many in the West as the first step in a thaw of relations between Iran and Egypt which had existed since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the same year in which Iranian revolutionaries deposed the Sha of Iran with a coalition of Islamists, leftists, moderates, and liberals. The parallels between the quickness with which the radical Islamist Ayatollah Khomeni consolidated power was seen by many as being in strong parallel with the quickness with which Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, achieved power in Egypt. It was seen by many that Morsi was doing everything he could to play up that parallel and that it would be a harbinger of the end of Iran’s long isolation in the diplomatic world. Thomas Friedman opined in the New York Times that his very presence at the meeting was a signal of hostile intent against the West and the democracy which Western thought represents.

And yet when Morsi arrived, he turned everybody’s assumptions for how the meeting would go upside down. Morsi blasted the Assad Regime in Syria for its repression and mass murder, for its neglect of democratic principles, for its disrespect of rule of law, and by extension, he blasted the Iranian regime whose support of Assad is so crucial to both regimes. In the ultimate insult, Morsi likened the Syrian struggle for freedom against Assad to the Palestinian struggle against Israelis. The Syrian delegation walked out, and as the host country, the Iranian representatives had to sit still as this lifelong critic of the United States gave a lecture in Tehran that could easily come from George W. Bush’s mouth.

But like George W. Bush, only much moreso, Morsi has a record of beliefs and membership that is abysmally far from the values he preached. Not only is Mohamed Morsi a US critic, he’s also a 9/11 truther. As late as 2010, Morsi was still alleging  that 9/11 was an inside job. About the Israel/Palestine conflict, he stated that ‘The two-state solution is nothing but a delusion concocted by the brutal usurper of the Palestinian lands.’ These statements of belief are not in themselves too different from those one hears on the proverbial ‘Arab Street.’ But Morsi belongs to an organization far more dangerous and cultish than even the Republican party, and that organization would not select him as their first leader to ascend to the Egyptian presidency if they were not positive that he is a perfect representation of their beliefs.

Like any successful organization, the Muslim Brotherhood gives their members a sense that they belong to something greater than themselves, and therefore the lack of freedom within the organization can be forgiven. Like all effective religious organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood is a combination of religious order, social club, and political action committee. It should go without saying, but women are not permitted, no matter how religious. Like any fraternity, the recruits of the organization have a period of evaluation during which their suitability is assessed. That period can last from five to eight years, during which their ability to tow the party line is assessed closely. Those who display signs of iconoclasm are summarily drummed out of membership. When Brotherhood youth activists, many of the same ones who organized the protests against Mubarak, expressed opposition to the Brotherhood consolidating themselves in post-Mubarak Egypt as a single party – the Freedom and Justice Party, with Mohamed Morsi as its leader – they were immediately thrown out of the Brotherhood. When a relatively liberal Brotherhood leader, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, announced that he would run for President, the Freedom and Justice Party’s President – Mohamed Morsi – announced that the party was not ready to endorse a candidate, and then the Brotherhood threw Fotouh out. When younger Brotherhood members announced their support for Fotouh, they too were thrown out.  

The brotherhood’s first stated goal is an authoritarian one: the widespread imposition of Sharia law. Its second goal is an imperial one: to unite the Islamic world. This is the Muslim Brotherhood creed: “Allah is our objective, the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader, Jihad (Holy War) is our way, and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of all our aspirations.”

This creed is not merely authoritarian or imperial. Those final two phrases will be familiar to anyone who has studied movements as different as Nazism and Communism and the Crusades and the KKK. It is the totalitarian credo. To the totalitarian, a great death is the highest honor life may bestow. And because a great death is so honorable, it gives totalitarians the spiritual cover their consciences require to do any beastly act in the quest to bring about their glorious end. In achieving their great death, they die so that a new, more glorious world may begin. Even if their world is one of squalor, these totalitarians have spent their lives killing, maiming, raping, and torturing so that a world can be born free of the acts they perpetrate. And yet after all those glorious ends, the new beginning never happens, and the bloody, ignominious suffering of millions happened for no reason at all.

And yet for the moment, Morsi’s proven quite practical in his foreign designations. It was Egypt, not Saudi Arabia, whom America was first to consult during peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine – and America consulted him because he was smart enough not to give any indication that he means to give up on the Israel/Egypt alliance. For all the rhetoric which Morsi and his party have issued against Israel, Morsi has thus far been surprisingly cool-headed on the issue.  He even went so far as to send Israel’s President Shimon Peres a letter in which he said “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region including the Israeli people.” A  Morsi spokesman later denied the veracity of the letter to his own people (a tactic many Israelis will remember as being straight out of Yassir Arafat’s playbook), but it doesn’t change the fact that the letter exists, and it says something encouraging (though not too much so) that Morsi is obviously convinced that the appearance of diplomacy is necessary.

Time will demonstrate whether Morsi means to plan for war while keeping the appearance of diplomacy. But whether or not he means to be a democrat, he clearly means to keep the appearance of an authoritarian. It’s hardly clear why Mohamed Morsi declared his edicts above judicial review, but he did so in such a way as to announce that his ultimate goal is to rule by decree – and also did so in such a way that he had to compromise with the judiciary to come to an understanding. It’s entirely possible that the whole mess was a masterful plan to show corrupt judges sympathetic to the military that he was not above overturning their decrees – or maybe it was just an extraordinarily clumsy power grab. But the end result was that he will not be seen as a democratic reformer for the foreseeable future – and when dealing with a country used to dictatorship, perhaps that’s necessary, even if he's really a democrat.

But if Morsi runs too afoul of democracy and peace, there are still some rather enormous incentives to keep Egypt stable – principle among them the $4.8 billion check Egypt requested from the IMF to stop their reserves from being depleted and the $1.7 billion check which the United States cuts to Egypt every year as a reward for unimpeded access to the Suez Canal, being at peace with Israel, and not remilitarizing the Sinai Peninsula. Should Morsi become a ‘War President,’ this money would dry up faster than the Dead Sea (hiyo!).

And yet right after Morsi left Tehran, he went to Beijing to visit Hu Jintao. Trade between China and Egypt is was $8.8 billion of business last year – a 30% increase over 2010. The Muslim Brotherhood may yet find that they can behave as bellicosely as they like and still get a source of funding should the US funding dry up.

It is simply not in Morsi’s interests to be too democratic or too diplomatic. Money should matter to the Muslim Brotherhood, and there should be no doubt that it does. But even if the US doesn’t give it, China might. And even if Morsi decides to broker peace between Israel and Palestine and institute democratic reform, there is still a larger problem.

Even if Mohamed Morsi is truly a moderate, or even a relative liberal in his own way, the organization which backs him is not. And any organization which spent the large majority of 84 years railing against American imperialism will be none too happy about an state ruled by an Islamic party that must still be dependent on America for its funding. And even if Morsi convinces the Muslim Brotherhood to a man to follow him in the accommodation of America and Israel, there is the added problem that 25.5% of the Egyptian parliament is comprised by three other Islamic parties – all of whose principle objection to the Brotherhood is that its goals are too moderate.

We liberals have a bad lot. We want to hope against wanting to hope that this revolution will be different, in spite of the fact that it hardly ever is. For all the Velvet Revolutions and constitutional republics, there are more authoritarian regimes which topple in great expense of blood and treasure, only to create a terrible power-vacuum in which a still more authoritarian regime takes over – sometimes a totalitarian one. It is virtually hopeless for a liberal rule of law to succeed in any country in which rule of law is lacking. If the judiciary is dishonest, if speech is censored, if elections are not fair, what is the point of democracy?

The perfect is the enemy of the good, the good the enemy of the adequate, and the adequate the enemy of the bearable. Over and over again, we’ve been wrong about the conditions which are required for revolutions to succeed. We were already wrong about the Liberal/Islamist alliance in 1979 Iran. We were wrong about the Liberal/Communist alliance in 1948 China and 1917 Russia. We were wrong about the Liberal/Nationalist alliance of 1848 Europe, and we were wrong about the Liberal/Military alliance of 1789 France. Many of us were even wrong about the liberal/conservative alliance of 2003 America/Iraq.  In Egypt, the protests against Mubarak were 2 million strong – a high number until you realize that the total population of Egypt is 80 million. Those voices were not heard in the debates leading up to the toppling of Mubarak, but we hear them now; and what they have to say is terrifying.

There is a paradox within liberalism that while it can compromise on details, it can have no possible accommodation to other ideologies. The end goal of every political compromiser is either to ensure greater liberty, or to ensure less. Therefore, all elements of a ruling government must share the end goal of allowing for greater liberty - because in a compromise with authoritarians, all the authoritarians have to do is to sabotage liberty until authoritarianism becomes necessary. If, as in the case of President Obama, the rule of law is still on the side of liberals, then some compromise is possible if the other side is rational enough to allow for one. But any liberal who wants to ride the coattails of a more bloody ideology to greater power is an idiot. By their very definition, authoritarians have more incentive and willpower to enact their agenda. In a fair battle between liberalism and authoritarianism, liberalism will always win. But there are very few countries in which that battle is fair. In a no-rules battle with other ideologies, the most  repressive and violent ideology always wins. And the winning ideology won’t make the mistake of allowing even the small amount of liberal discourse which enabled them to come to power. It may yet seem probable that Mubarak was the best which Egypt – and the entire Middle East – could hope for, and if he was, then we will be moist-eyed for the good old days when a dictator only killed a few thousand people to keep the peace. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

800 Words: Why Impressionism Is A Buzzkill - Part 1

I saw a stunning, absolutely stunning, play at Everyman Theatre called Heroes. It was by a French playwright I’ve never heard of, and translated by Tom Stoppard. Lest anybody be intimidated by the S-word, the play is not nearly so highbrow as the credential suggests – and for someone who tackles such highbrow subjects as Stoppard, I’m invariably surprised by how much entertainment mileage he gets out of subjects so dry. Like all work that bears repeated viewings (I’m definitely going again before it closes next Sunday…anybody up for Thursday night?), this is a tragicomedy about life – two hours of three old French men bickering while they watch themselves grow old and hope against hope that they can reverse the ageing process by ever so slight increments. No description of the play can do justice to how funny it is, or how disturbing.

But as I left the theater last night, I found that it wasn’t the play about which I thought. It was the first stirring of nostalgia for France since my return to the States three months ago. I think it was the trees in the background scenery – those hazy impressionist trees right out of a late Monet at Giverny (or a Bob Ross 'Happy Tree'). It was that French countryside, with that amazingly comfortable dry heat, and that shade of green on the trees which you can never find in any other place in the world, and the Nicois cuisine, and all those legs….

I didn’t much care for Paris. Looking at contemporary Paris is like looking at a failed Washington (moreso). From Western capital to capital – Athens to Rome to Venice to London to Vienna to Paris to Berlin to DC – the neoclassical architecture just gets bigger along with the ambitions of the leader who commissions it. And yet the only people impressed by those boulevards of government are the faceless functionaries who work inside and fancy themselves powerful because they have an office in a big building. For a city so renowned for its beauty, there are large swaths of the center city that are unbelievably faceless. It’s sometimes been said that the French are ‘Germans with better food’, nowhere is that more true than in the boulevards of Paris.

 (Paris, it’s like a city designed by Saint-Saens)

I much, much prefer England to France, but nowhere is that more true than in how much I prefer London to Paris. Contemporary Paris is like a city trapped in a fake vision from a Toulouse-Latrec painting showed in a Simon Schama documentary then disseminated on PBS and uploaded from a VCR taping onto youtube. The city seems so far removed from everything which used to make it a vital city and so weighed down by its past glories that there is no present Paris of which I can speak. I spent ten full days in Paris and there was not a single day in which I felt I was experiencing anything about the city except for what Nicolas Sarkozy wanted tourists to see. And believe me, I tried. How many French novelists, composers, songwriters, filmmakers, showrunners, contemporary artists, playwrights, worthy of the name can you come up with? I can name worthwhile past figures by the dozens and hundreds, but today almost all I can think of is a bunch of intellectual quacks who write the kind of pseudo-philosophical junk that gets American professors tenure if they pretend to like that sort of thing. In ten days, the most contemporary, ‘vital’ thing I saw was a jazz show in Marais with a saxophonist which sounded like he belonged with Miles Davis circa Filles de Kilimanjaro. And the saxophonist was Israeli!

 I suspect the real Paris, the ‘interesting’ Paris, is all at least three or four-hundred years old, and Baron Haussmann ploughed over it to make the anonymous capital we now call the World’s Great City. I know…I know… Paris anonymous? Sacre Saint Sebastian! But over and over again, I found that the most interesting things in Paris, perhaps in France generally, hailed from the Middle Ages. Nothing I saw in France was more impressive than the Cathedral on a Cathedral on a Cathedral on a Cathedral on a Cathedral at Chartres, or the oooollld streets of Avignon – which my travelling mate described as the perfect city to have a fairy-tale wedding during the day then murder your in-laws at night. You look at all those medieval paintings and you see a very different country from the effete aesthetics of later centuries – all those religious and classical figures rendered in disturbingly violent and obscene poses beyond your imagination. This is not the medieval art wing you pass over in American museums – when it comes to the Middle Ages, Europe kept pretty much all the good stuff for itself. This was an animally violent, sexual, religious, deeply divided culture – fascinated by barbarism and enacting that fascination in every way it could imagine. Those paintings are the sex and violence action flicks of their time, and clearly those Middle Ages were a lot closer to the spirit of our time than they were to the eras that followed. Not since the Middle Ages have we encountered a century that dreamed up so many inventive ways to kill and maim as the one which just finished, and not since the Middle Ages has the gap of knowledge between the educated and the ignorant been so vast.

But it was to the French countryside, to those trees and ponds near Avignon and Chartres to which those painters escaped so that they might capture a new vision – a vision not enamored of perfect pictures and ideal forms. It was the century of Napoleon, and the power and glory that was France’s allowed for new explorations. What is the purpose of greater power and influence if you only want to capture that which has already been captured?

And there began a school of painting that depicted warm climates coldly, and took infinitely painstaking technique to express a distorted result. In was art whose only reason for existing is to express the confidence that it is absolutely unnecessary – no longer are there expressions of the religious ecstasy you find in Michelangelo, or the humanist pride you find in Rembrandt, or the bearing witness to despair and evil you find in Goya. These are the first paintings that feel so confident in themselves that the only thing they express is a middle finger in your direction. ‘Wait. You think this peach is orange? Fuck you you’ll never figure out which colors it is!’ ‘What, you think those lily pads look like brush strokes? Fuck you your eyes don’t even notice a lily pad unless we make it look weird!’

At this epochal moment in art history, just as painting surrendered its dominance over all the world’s visual art to photography and just before the emergence of moving photos, came the most important expression of irony the world had ever (and still has ever) seen (except Seinfeld?). There is nothing sincere about impressionism, and nobody cared enough to jail the painters for being insincere. The only thing remaining is the paintings itself, and the weird notion that nobody needs painting anymore, so it doesn't have to express anything but what the painter wills the canvas to express. If you like what he expresses, so much the better. If you don’t like it, fuck you. It is a world with no reason for existing, and we all live in it. And because we have no reason for living, we all sit around and pass our time as best we can with unnecessary work, unnecessary hobbies, unnecessary love, unnecessary sex, and unnecessary blog posts. If we can get some pleasure out of our lives, so much the better for it, but what does it matter even if we can’t?

And that’s why I found something deeply, deeply depressing about the Musee d’Orsay – it was like looking into yet another vision of the past and seeing yourself reflected back. If the Petit Palais in Avignon was like looking straight into the heart of American barbarism (Red America?), then the Musee d’Orsay was like looking straight into the heart of American over-privilege (Blue America?). If Medieval Art is like an Iowa evangelical church where unmarried teenagers have violent sex after being worked into a frenzy by worship sessions, then Impressionist Art is like a CBGB punk show in New York where everybody’s either moshing the shit out of each other or silently nodding their heads.

So there you have it – the three basic camps of France, which also happen to be the three basic camps of America – superstition, imperialism, and decadence. If you belong to the mores of any one of the three, you will never feel anything but at home. But if you’re not a natural fit in any of the three, you’re kinda screwed. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

800 Words: Bibi Netanfucktard - A Plea for Mature Discourse About Israel Part 2

At this point, attacking the excessively pro-Palestine crowd is like picking the lowest-hanging fruit off a tree. The thrill of the fight is almost completely gone. I know I’m right, and they’ll never know they’re wrong (and if they ever figure it out, they’ll probably go to the other extreme and become ultra-orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Christians). Instead I’m just refighting the same old lazy clichés that were there long before I reached any kind of political consciousness. Debating the Palestinian side is only getting stupider, but the Israeli side is growing ever more in need of people who can scare them straight. And because this is a new movement that is growing exponentially more in need, this will necessarily be a much longer post.

To the excessively pro-Israel crowd: There is an authoritarian virus spreading through the Jewish world. It’s present in the politics of Israel, it’s present in the politics of supporting Israel, and it’s present in every other aspect of Jewish life. It would have us reject the conversions and marriages of any Jew that was not performed by an orthodox rabbi. It would have those of us Jews not privileged enough to believe in God 150% die for the Israeli army while they get paid exemptions to study Torah. It would have us believe that settlers in Arab Majority land are pioneers and heroes instead of fanatics. And in a stunning reversal of feminist triumphs, it would have women slave away at work while the men do nothing all day but study torah. It’s also present in all of the people who accommodate those who believe this way as though it were merely a charming quirk of people who are fundamentally on our side. It is present in the Orthodox community, it’s present in any secular or non-orthodox Jew who still believes in ‘Greater Israel,’ it’s present in anyone who believes that Muslim life is cheap, it’s present in anyone who believes that assimilation is the greatest evil to beset the Jewish community, it’s present in any Jew who would choose faith over enlightenment, it’s present in any Jew who still believes that we can negotiate the dialogue between faith and enlightenment without choosing one over the other, it’s present in any Jew who believes that there can ever be either peace or security without negotiation, it’s present in any Jew naïve enough to believe that Israeli security is simply something we Jews can ‘take’ by ourselves if no one in the Goyish world gives us the right to it. If this is the true future of Judaism, I want out immediately.

It grows stronger with every passing election and debate, and has ever less regard for the decencies of human interaction and the necessities of geostrategic thinking. It rewards bellicosity and stupidity, it regards all change as a threat. It allows the worst elements of Israeli society to feed on the body politic, and it’s growing to allow the worst elements of fanaticism as unchecked a rein among Jews as it currently has among Christians. It refuses to acknowledge that the world has changed since 1967, and would like to keep Israel and the Jewish religion precisely as it once was when the evidence of an overwhelming change in both is all around us. It has allowed a newly rejuvenated Likud Party (right wing) to drive out any elements from its party which insist on rational considerations and deposit them in Kadima (the centrist party – founded by that liberal lion, Ariel Sharon) and has just approved a merger with the (far-right) Russian immigrant party which distrusts anything that smacks of liberal (aka American) weakness and the ever-swelling ranks of the ultra-orthodox religious parties who demand sums which bankrupt the Israeli coffers. This virus may yet kill Israel and lead Judaism back into the dark ages of pogrom, proscription, and persecution.

To those of us even slightly in touch with reality, it forces each of us to choose, are we for or against the idea that Jews can live without goyim. I am as sad as anybody else to have to make this choice, but I am 100% against it, and will fight it in every way I can for the rest of my life. I am a Jew, and a reasonably proud one. I don’t believe in the religion, and I don’t know how anyone else can. But I believe that Jews have a belief in learning and ethical conduct that produces much more success and purpose and happiness than people have in the general population.  But if the Jewish community itself forces me to make a choice between belief and learning, I’ll choose more learning every time.

 The current government in Israel does not resemble the best traditions of Western liberalism even in the slightest. If the Likud party wins re- election, the only ‘First World’ government which Israel will resemble is Hungary, in which the right-wing is flanking to the most populist, pernicious, and bigoted elements of the far right in an attempt to expel any element from government that is not ultra-nationalist. Many governments have tried this – including France and the Netherlands, but only in Hungary has this ‘democratic’ course of action proven more successful than it has in the current State of Israel. It is amazing to think that only six months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli public would elect the Knesset opposition leader who did absolutely nothing to prevent the calls of ultra-orthodox rabbis for Rabin’s assassination. But that Israel would re-elect him fifteen years later after throwing him out the first time for corruption is beyond belief. And in this second premiership, Netanyahu responded by providing a right-wing government that is precisely as right-wing, corrupt, and authoritarian as his previous record would suggest. 

Speaker of the Knesset: Reuven Rivlin – the first speaker in the history of Israel to break with the tradition of neutrality. In his first term as speaker, he used his platform to become one of the most vocal opponents of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from Gaza. He's also used his platform to criticize Yad Vashem for allowing Pope Benedict XVI to speak there (as a former 'Nazi') and has advocated for an apartheid state in which the emerging Palestinian majority becomes Israeli citizens stripped of voting rights rather than a two-state solution.

Minister of Strategic Affairs: Moshe Ya’alon – who was removed by Ariel Sharon as Chief of Staff to the Israeli Army after he publicly protested Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza. He was then sued by citizens of Qana, a town in Southern Lebanon, for his role in an incident in 1996 when 800 Lebanese Civilians took refuge in a UN compound. As results of the incident, 106 refugees were killed and another 120 injured by artillery shells in an action which the UN ruled unlikely to be an accident.

Minister of Internal Affairs: Eli Yishai – who advocated blowing Gaza back to the middle ages and destroying all infrastructure.  After the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, he declared that the failure to complete objectives was due to soldiers not being religious enough. He also tried to refuse African refugees and migrants because of his belief that the Africans brought large amounts of disease with them (scientifically proven to be mistaken, in case anybody thought otherwise).

Minister Without Portfolio: Benny Begin – The son of Likud’s founder, Menachem Begin, who during Netanyahu’s first term lead the right-wing of Likud in forming a separate ultra-right-wing party after Netanyahu announced that he would uphold some clauses of the Oslo Accords. Begin believes that Palestinians and Israeli Arabs should live as a semi-autonomous independent state with Israel controlling all security questions.

Foreign Minister: Avigdor Lieberman – who called for the execution of Israeli Arab members of the Knesset, bombing all places of business in Ramallah, suggested drowning Palestinian POW’s in the Dead Sea (admittedly, half-jokingly), and implied that the best solution to Gaza would be a nuclear weapon. He proposed that all Israeli Arabs be made to swear a ‘loyalty oath’ and to jail all Arabs who publicly mourn on Israeli Independence Day. He has also been investigated and indicted for corruption accusations and was once convicted of the physical assault of a twelve-year-old.

Minister of Environmental Protection: Gilad Erdan – who advocated for the use of Hamas prisoners as human shields against Qossam rockets and for the right of Israeli judges to revoke citizenship for ‘disloyalty to the state.’
Minister of Housing and Construction: Ariel Atlas – who called for the complete segregation of Arab Israelis from Jewish Israelis.
Minister of Justice: Yaakov Neeman – who was reported to say that Israeli law should be gradually made to be in accordance with Halakha (Jewish ritual law).
Minister of Culture and Sport – Limor Livnat – who called for gender segregation on public transportation in Ultra-Orthodox areas and for the National Anthem to be sung at all Israeli schools at the beginning of every school day.
Finance Minister: Yuval Steinitz – a former academic who has warned repeatedly that Egypt plans to remilitarize the Sinai Peninsula.

A few things should be said about this list. The first, obviously, is that a list of ministers in any Palestinian government thus far in Gaza or the West Bank would probably include a litany of actions and comments five-times as blood-curdling as the one you’ve just read – and will probably remain so for another generation. Secondly, every Israeli government since its inception has included at least a few militant nuts. One of them, Yitzhak Shamir, even became the second-longest serving Prime Minsiter. But the true nuts, even during the Shamir era, were exceptions rather than the rule. But look at the composition of the current Israeli Knesset. The Knesset holds 120 seats. 27 of these are Likud, another 15 are Yisrael Beitenu, still another 18 are comprised of Israel’s various religious parties. Together they form a governing coalition of exactly 60. If the coalition members were a bit more rational, they could include the centrist Kadima and their 28 members in their coalition for a super-majority coalition of 88. When one adds the four seats of the still further right-wing National Union party, that means that there are roughly 28 current members out of the 120-strong Knesset who are well-disposed to speak up for any point of view that is left of the current Israeli center. Of those twenty-eight, seven are Israeli  Arabs.

Even now, to call Israel anything but a democracy is pure sophistry. Israel may be flawed, and now more than ever, but it is not a dictatorship, and is still by exponential quantities the most liberal state in the Middle East. To draw any sort of moral equivalence between what Israelis do to Palestinians and what Palestinians do to both Israelis and themselves is pure moral frivolity. But the moral equivalence between the Israeli government and the Palestinian government is drawing too close for anyone who believes that Zionism and Liberalism have proven absolutely compatible in the past and should still be compatible today. It has to be wondered if Israel’s ability to maintain itself as a democracy is stretching to the breaking point – is the break imminent?

There was a time, not too many decades ago, when the State of Israel and the state of political liberty were not seen as two distinct entities by any sane person. The world saw Israel correctly for what it is, an embattled democratic underdog encircled by authoritarian neighbors who long for nothing more than its destruction as a replacement goal for the hard work of liberalizing their countries. Israel is still the most democratic country in the Middle East by far, and yet the rest of the region, admittedly at a crawl, is beginning to catch up while Israel jogs backwards.  It is conceivable that in our lifetime, the false moral equivalence or superiority from Arab to Israeli policy which many insist already exist, will be true.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly awaits a green light from President Obama to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, as though an attack on Iran will put an end to the nuclear threat on Israel. Even if Israel successfully destroys the entire Iranian nuclear program, there still remains the problem that any Israel-hating country, any Israel-hating terrorist organization, can still import a nuclear weapon from the A. Q. Khan network  in Pakistan (remember them?) or from North Korea. An attack on Iran is all Iran needs to declare holy war on Israel – for which political Islamists will line up, perhaps by the tens of thousands to be holy warriors with suicide bombs for the cause. Any missile which lands or even detonates in the air can contain radioactive material or chemical weaponry. An Iranian nuclear weapon is a serious, serious problem. But an attack on their nuclear facility is about as far from a serious solution as can be imagined.

It’s not hard to believe that had Ariel Sharon survived his second stroke without brain damage, he’d have known better how to handle it. One of the great ironies of Modern Israel is that Arik Sharon, supposedly ‘the bulldozer’ barred from high office for so long because no one thought he would ever give up on the settlement project or on the occupation of any territory, was the only Prime Minister in Israeli history to dismantle settlements and leave occupied territory in either Gaza or the West Bank. Like Richard Nixon before him, he stoked right wing fears as a means to achieve high office, and then used his credibility from the ultra-right as a tactic to pursue some diplomatic policies that were almost left-of-center.

After all that worry about World War III breaking out during an Ariel Sharon premiership, it turned out that Arik wasn’t a fascist after all, he was merely a brilliant demagogue willing to say or do anything to get the desired result. The unilateral Gaza evacuation was no great triumph for either Israel or Palestine, but it’s certainly preferable to continued occupation and insurrection. I have no idea what Sharon would have done to neutralize the Iranian threat, but I’m sure he’d have found a better solution than Bibi’s.

If the American president Arik Sharon most resembles is Nixon, then the president Bibi Netanyahu most resembles is George W. Bush. Bibi is a far more articulate man than Bush in both Hebrew and English, but in his decision making he appears no more intelligent, and has no more spine when faced with right-wing nuts who whisper in his ear. Like Bush, Bibi comes from something approaching right-wing royalty in his country. Bibi’s older brother, Yoni Netanyahu, was the commander of the Entebbe Raid that rescued 102 Israeli passengers from an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and brought to Idi Amin’s Uganda. Yoni was the only Israeli soldier killed in the raid, and only four of the 106 hostages were killed. Bibi’s father is the historian, Benzion Netanyahu, perhaps Israel’s most important ultraconservative intellectual from its founding until his death just this year at the age of 102. For three generations, Benzion Netanyahu was a  living link to the original circles of ‘Revisionist Zionism’ which advocated the forcible removal  by any means necessary of all potential enemies of a Jewish Israel whether British or Arab. Even after turning 100, Professor Netanyahu continued to warn in public pronouncements of the coming nuclear threat from Iran and the necessity of bombing their nuclear facilities. Bibi’s uncle is a famous mathematician, and his aunt is a former Israeli Supreme Court Justice.

If Sharon’s insane rhetoric and behavior masks a Nixon-like realist, then perhaps Bibi’s Bush-like charming swagger similarly conceals the brazen heart of a true believer. And yet his rhetoric, while overheated, isn’t entirely wrong. Netanyahu denies that there is such a thing as a Palestinian – a not quite as insane view as it might seem. It might have had some legitimacy if the people who now call themselves Palestinians hadn’t been left to rot together in refugee camps by Israelis and Arabs alike for sixty-five years. If there wasn’t such a thing as a Palestinian people in 1948, there is certainly such a thing now. But Netanyahu has made some still more insane statements – such as that the Arab desire to rid Israel of the West Bank is like Germany’s desire to rid Czechoslovakia of the Sudetenland. It’s a very dramatic wording, but well... many Arab leaders probably do want to rid Israel of the West Bank as a way to conquer more of Israel down the road. It can't be denied, there are many powerful people in the Middle East who see Hitler as an ideal model of how to treat Jews. 

However, any question of whether or not Bibi was sane was put out of my mind ten days after the Barack Obama’s Cairo address to the Arab world. When Obama gave the Cairo speech, he fed Netanyahu a golden egg only for Netanyahu to spit it out immediately. The only true criticism of Israel Obama made was over the issue of settlements. And yet because Obama included that little criticism of Israel (and perhaps because he didn’t praise Israel more in front of an Arab audience…waaahhh….), Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet. Ten days later, Netanyahu made a speech at Bar-Ilan University stating that Israel will only accept a demilitarized Palestinian state which accepts with an undivided Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and the right of Israeli settlements to exhibit ‘natural growth.’ It was a speech designed for the specific purpose of stopping peace negotiations before they could even begin.

It’s not hard to see why Netanyahu did it, and perhaps it’s even easy to have a bit of sympathy with his problem. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that all this talk of a new generation of rational Muslim liberals powerful enough to take over the Middle East from authoritarian oppressors is as completely idiotic and simple-minded as it was when people said the same thing about 1979 Iran. But now, we’ll never know, because Netanyahu closed the door on perhaps the key way in which relatively liberal Arab leaders like Salaam Fayyad and Mohammed Morsi  (do we even know if Morsi is a liberal yet?) might have proven themselves serious leaders for the  future – a bilateral peace agreement with Israel in which the Arab states recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, renounce the Palestinian right of return, and prosecute those who would do Israel harm in exchange for Israel recognizing an independent and completely equal Palestine, giving up all claims to territory in Gaza and non-Jerusalem West Bank, give Muslims control of their holy sites, and renounce East Jerusalem so that it may be the Palestinian capital. In giving that speech, Netanyahu may have signed the Arab Spring’s death warrant before it even began, and in doing so, there’s at least a small chance he may have also signed Israel's death warrant too.

Whether the enemy is Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ayatollahs of Iran, there will always be someone still more insane on the horizon. Israel tried to work its way around Yassir Arafat, and the result was a Gaza (and perhaps soon a West Bank) controlled by Hamas. 25.5% of the Egyptian parliament is currently comprised of “the Islamist Bloc,” a collection of three Islamic political parties for whom the Muslim Brotherhood is too moderate. If Mohammed Morsi proves unsuccessful, his replacement could be far more extreme.

But what is true for the Arab world is just as true for the Jewish world. Neither Menachem Begin, nor Yitzhak Shamir, nor Ariel Sharon, nor Ehud Olmert, nor Bibi Netanyahu could solve the neighborhood conflict by force. Yet each uses force more overwhelming than the last, and each time, a plurality of Jews decide that the situation requires the use of still more force. Rather than being easier after the Arab spring to be a liberal in this region, it may well turn out to be harder to be one than ever before. 

Israel’s best and brightest seem to leave the country in droves and the statistics for it are staggering, Meanwhile, the birthrates of the ultra-orthodox increase exponentially. The vast majority of those who remain are fundamentally cut off from any international discourse and see the rest of the world as hostile to everything Israel is – in many ways, they’re not wrong. But if Jews engage rational critics of Israel while dismissing irrational ones, it will be Jews who control how Israel is viewed in the world. If Jews dismiss all criticism of Israel, it will be the most irrational and strident anti-semites who control worldwide discourse about this most important subject.

The world has changed immeasurably. And yet many if not most Jews still pretend we live in 1967 – the year when the Jewish idea of a prosperous secure Israel lined up best with the world opinion’s image of a secular, semi-socialist state that took no side in the Cold War. By the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, both images were shattered. Within the next six years, it became clear that Israel would be insecure for the duration of its existence, and its survival could only be ensured by the backing of American military and financial power’s most distasteful elements. Since 1973, Israel underwent an eighteen-year quagmire in Lebanon and assumed an endless series of ground assaults in Gaza and the West Bank. Whatever one’s feelings about the morality of these actions, you would have to be blind to the present realities to still believe in the idea of an Israel that remains secure, secular, and democratic. Many if not most Israelis have chosen the first at the expense of the latter two, and while one can’t blame them, one can still question whether or not they’re ensuring the impossibility of their security by not concentrating on the two elements simultaneously. 

The era when Israel was seen as an important liberal cause is a half-century in the past. And yet we address the Israel problem to the larger public as though the Holocaust still means what it did to public memory in the 1960’s, as though Israel is still a plucky little quasi-socialist state with little infrastructure or foreign investment, and as though Israel’s support from the United States is not guaranteed. Every time we allow this discussion to proceed as though we’re still living in 1967, we allow authoritarians who live in 2012 to get away with whatever they wish. In an era when the Justice Minister of the world’s one liberal Jewish state can start talking about bringing Israel to Halakhic law, when its Minister of Housing can advocate for complete segregation between Arabs and Jews, when its Minister of Strategic Affairs was probably involved in a mass murder, and when its Foreign Minister implies that the best solution to the country’s problems would be to nuke a contiguous state, this is not just an unfortunate aberration. This is a systemic problem which every Jew among us has allowed to happen by allowing a virus to grow in the entirety of Jewish society – both in Israel and outside of it. Ze’ev Sternhall, chair of the Political Science Department at Hebrew University and a worldwide expert on fascism remarked, “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post-World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain…a crude and multi-faceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” In 2008, a settler set off a pipe bomb in his house.

And the future probably holds still worse. In 2009, a mock-election of high school students around Israel produced Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman and 56 percent of those students polled would oppose the idea of Israeli Arabs being elected to the Knesset. Both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have warned about the coming demographic shift that would lead the combined Palestinian and Israeli Arab populations of Israel to exceed the Jewish Israeli population, perhaps as early as 2017 – in which case Israel would truly be an apartheid state like South Africa.

Monday, November 19, 2012

800 Words: Bibi Netanfucktard - A Plea for Mature Discourse About Israel Part 1

The next few weeks will see a lot of temporary insanity on the issue of the Middle East. Let’s hope that ends in a few weeks. In the meantime, here are some rather unmeasured words against both sides of the irrationality which will be engendered about this war in the next few weeks. If enough people don’t say them, they will control discourse about Israel. And if they do, this war will never end.

To the excessively pro-Palestine crowd: No, it’s not anti-semitic to criticize Israel. Israel is deserving of much criticism, and routinely gets more of it than any other country in the world. It is, however, anti-semitic to criticize Israel while ignoring far worse human rights violations around the world. If you are inflamed by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, then why weren't you more inflamed about the state sponsored murders in Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Iraq, Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Algeria, Syria, Russia, Myanmar, Liberia, Rwanda, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Congo, Zaire, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Turkey and North Korea? In the last twenty-five years, all of these countries have been responsible for more state-sponsored murder than Israel, sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands more; or the hundreds of state-created refugee crises over the last sixty-five years that are at least as great as the badness Israel visits on the Palestinians? To say that is not tantamount to saying that the Palestinian cause should be ignored, or that Israel should not be criticized. It merely says that far worse humanitarian crises are being ignored because the larger public insists on focusing on this one humanitarian crisis to the exclusion far worse ones all over the world. Of all these deserving humanitarian causes, it’s the Palestinian cause that’s the greatest rallying cry for so many people of our generation who fancy themselves progressives.

Why is this?

Because unlike all of these other causes, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have successfully waged a violent and bloody war – not only against Israel but also against its own people; the ratio of non-judicial murders among Palestinians between the Israeli government and the Palestinian government(s) is roughly 1-to-1, and that ratio does not count the number of civilians which Palestinian governments have put into harm’s way by making them into human shields against Israeli fire (and if you’re wondering how so many Palestinians who are killed are children, that’s because it is Hamas’s policy to place rocket launchers, weapons depots, and military encampments in places where schools are used for cover - a strategy they learned from Fatah and the Palestinian Authority). All throughout its history, Israel’s human rights violations are smaller than those of their neighbors, not only towards Israel, but towards their own people. All throughout it history, Israel has been faced with neighbors whose governments have genocidal intentions – and make no mistake, many members of every Islamist and pan-Arabist government have always wanted to wipe out every Jew in Israel and pursue that goal to this day. And yet the world pretends that if Israel changes its policies, so will the regimes who wish it dead.

All of this wouldn’t matter though if the Palestinians had a Nelson Mandela as their historic leader rather than Yassir Arafat. Had they a Mandela who persuaded them to forswear violence, the morality of their cause would be unimpeachable, and who knows? They might have had a state thirty years ago without their government fashioning their people as the world’s cause célèbre with pictures of dead children in place of infrastructure, and permanent refugee camps in place of investment. Instead, the Palestinian cause has drawn out as many of the worst progressive traditions as the campaign against South African apartheid brought out the best. If you want to be among people who’s idea of changing the world is fashionable sloganeering, the desire to be seen taking a stand rather than implementing results; believing that religious fanatics will listen to reason, and magical thinking that totalitarians will renounce violence if their demands are met; then take up the Palestinian cause. You will never have to do a day of serious work for peace in your life. And if you want your particular Middle East cause to be taken seriously by world opinion, the only way is to provoke Israel into joining the opposing side.

Israel’s history has had instances of every type of leader: from great men to war criminals. Within its ranks are every type of good and bad policy, and every type of good and bad soldier. Yet most criticism of Israel has always remained at the same vituperative level from its inception to the present day and shall remain so well beyond. Such criticism has absolutely nothing to do with Israel’s record of action. There can only be one explanation for this, and that is a combination of the anti-semitism of Israel’s enemies and with the prominence of Jewish suffering in modern Western history forms a noxious brew that makes the idea of Jewish moral failure a particularly sexy story in the modern historical narrative, and one which makes Israel a cause for protest beyond any other country in the world. Thanks to the unending Jewish history of suffering, Israel is now the Jew among nations, held to a standard of accountability to which no other country in the world would ever be held. Believing that Israel ought to be prevented from engaging in operations to keep its citizens safe is the racism of the anti-racists. Believing that Palestinians ought to have a state at all costs and at the expense of another country’s security is the nationalism of the anti-nationalists. Therefore, if you are more interested in disapproving of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians rather than countries who do far worse things to those they oppress, you are not a serious person, and the fact that other people take you seriously is a tragedy for the world. And even if you don’t think of yourself as an anti-semite, history will. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday Playlist: Israeli Music - The Whole F*ckin' Thing

For the moment, I'm not touching commentary on the Middle East with a ten-foot poll...which means that my resistance on it will wear out with an all-out assault of commentary next week.

For the moment, here's a sampling of the strange melange that is Israeli music. Israelis talk about politics out of compulsion. They're tired of it, and they're sick of the fact that nobody knows anything about their country except their politics. They want people to appreciate their culture, and nobody except them does yet:




Poogy 1973


Baruch's Boots

She's So Pretty

(Shalom Hanoch)

Ahavat Neurai

Maia Lol

M'chichim L'Mashiach

Kacha v'Kacha

L'An L'An L'An by Shlomo Artzi

We Don't Need by Shlomo Artzi

Etzlech Ba'Olam by HaYehudim


(Aviv Geffen)


For You

It's Alright

Ha'im Lihyot Bach Me'ohav




Goleh Sangam


Open a Window

(Ivri Lider)


Jesse (English)

Mishehu Pa'am

Zachti Lee'hov

The Man I Love (English)

(Dana International)


Ding Dong

Love Boy

Cinque Milla


(Ninet Tayeb)

Yam Shel Dmaot



My Game


(Harel Skaat)


Mah Ratziti

HaSheket Shenish'ar by Shiri Maimon

(Keren Ann - English)

My Name is Trouble

Where No Endings End

Not Going Anywhere

Lay Your Head Down

Chelsa Burns

(Mike Brant - French)

A crops perdu

Erev Shel Shoshanim (actually this one's folk, and not French...)

Laisse moi t'aimer

Serre les poings et bats toi

Rien qu-un larme

C'est comme ca que je t'aime

Dis Lui

Tout donne, tout repris

Middle Eastern

HaPerach BeGani by Zohar Argov

(Ofra Haza)

Shtu Ha'adarim

Im Nin'Alu




Kol Anshema



Yerushalayim Shel Zahav

Shibboleth Basadeh by Matityahu Shelem

Dam Dam by Aris San (he was technically Greek though)

Bum Pam by Aris San

Espera by Aris San

(everything from here on is Idan Raichel)

Chalomot Shel Acherim

Milim Yafot Me Ele

Rov Ha'Shaot

On Sabbath

MiMa Amakim


(Chava Alberstein)

Dona Dona 

Melache Maluche


Land of Israel Style (Hebrew Nationalist) - most of these songs are by Naomi Shemer

(Yaffa Yarkoni)


Bashana Haba'ah


Karev Yom

(Ran Eliran)

Ani Chozer HaBaita

Am Yisrael Chai

Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim

Tarnegol Ben Gever

Eastern European

Numi Numi

Thursday, November 15, 2012

800 Words: Star Wars Episode VII – Directed by Werner Herzog

A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

Cue John Williams music and title cards         

Episode VII – Spleen of the Infinite Void

It is an era of void and decadence. The iron fist of the Palpatine Empire, the great organizing principle of the galaxy, has fallen. And with it has fallen that illusory transcendence to which all men aspire but cannot achieve, for they must have an enemy to focus them towards the ecstatic, poetic, illuminative truth of the present moment.

Scene I: Luke Skywalker, returned to Tattooine, walking among the charred remains of Moss Isley Space Port he’d just reduced to embers and bones.

Luke’s Inner Monologue: Without the Emperor’s heroic evil against which I rebelled, I am but a wormhole to nothingness. The Empire is my one true love, and I shall always be its slave. I cry into my pillow at night, for it was the stupidities of the Empire which made us look towards greater dreams. I now shall devote all my remaining life to the resurrection of its glory.

Scene II: Lando, Chewy, and C3PO gaze out into the infinite frontier from the bridge of the Millenium Falcon

Lando Calrissian: As I contemplate eternity from my temporal vantage, all things seem an abyss. To see the senseless crimes the Empire wrought is to gaze into that abyss, to ignore them is to gaze into yet another. To ponder infinite time is to see a universe created in overwhelming anger and miserable chaos. The absurdity of the Galaxy is laid out before me, and I must bear witness to that which I see, though none shall listen.  

Chewbacca: In my quest to attain human speech I have attained the wisdom that all creatures are greater when they remain but dumb and free from understanding. The world remains a mystery we are free to ignore. Yet I truly thought that human speech would make me capable of great things, even of killing myself.

C3PO: My linguistic ability is a conduit to understanding, but whereof my programming cannot speak, I must be silent.

Scene III: Retired imperial stormtrooper played by Klaus Kinski standing by the side of the road on Yavin 4, he is missing two limbs and has a sign that reads falsely “Rebel forces veteran, need money for transport back to home planet of Dantooine. May the force be with you.” He has a mangy grey beard and is missing all his teeth, wearing only an undershirt, torn pants and one shoe. He accosts random passerby he sees and tackles him to the ground in front of the passerby’s children:

Stormtrooper: Do you not see that every stormtrooper who perpetrated these monstrous crimes was a human being negating the humanity of his inner worldspirit?!?!? It is not the stormtrooper who is a monster! It is his choice and lack thereof! By surrendering his will, he ventures deep into the obscene, fornicative willlessness of his pre-rational nature! We are blighted by the curse of nature, and all those who saw what we saw take our share of that curse upon ourselves. And like Oedipus we must realize the unalterability of our crimes and put our eyes out lest we see too far into the truth of our overwhelming and collective damnation!

(The stormtrooper smashes his long-since broken blaster into his eyes, rendering himself blind - causing the children to cry.)

Stormtrooper: Oh happy relief! Ecstacy of torment! Children! Gaze into the abysses that were once my eyes and see the collective sinfulness of men within these pits of suffering. Take that sin upon yourselves as I have and mangle your eyes before it is too late and you have unwittingly gazed into truth most horrible!

Scene IV: Han Solo piloting a fight cruiser in the Degoba System with R2D2.

Han Solo: I curse the present and search the galaxy for remnants of our glorious past. When fighting against the Empire, my identity as a scoundrel proclaimed me to the galaxy as a man of the future. Now I realize that I am but a half-broken conduit to the past, formed by Empire, blood, and iron. I am saturated with life yet there is a bell upon me that does not allow me to die. And like the Dutchman, I condemn myself to eternal wanderings. In such a vile, debased era, there is no other rational course. In an epoch without truth, we must go forth and reinvent it.

Scene V: Naboo. Queen Leia addresses a hundred thousand troops below from a balcony.)

Leia: The time when we fought against the Empire’s beastly magnificence was the only true happiness we’ve ever known. Now we know that happiness is only the absence of pain. We are now free to contemplate that we are but hamsters in a galaxy without a wheel. The enemy was not the empire, it was us! And we must now declare war, holy war, against ourselves!

(In an instant of collective, ecstatic madness, all 100,000 troops begin to kill each other. This goes on for three minutes against the backdrop of Popol Vuh’s music, until not a single troop remains alive. Werner’s camera lingers for the next five minutes, lovingly, on the rivers of blood and dismemberment.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Contemporary Violinists Better than Hilary Hahn Playlist

Just of the present..:

Nigel Kennedy (the punk asshole whom I'm ashamed to admit is for me is nevertheless probably the greatest classical violinist in the world.)

Janine Jansen (My guess is, in 10 years, she will be the world's least only by my criteria)

Gidon Kremer

Leila Josefowicz (the real greatest American violinist of her generation)

Rachel Barton Pine (her real rival, playing Metallica here)

Thomas Zehetmair

Anne Sophie Mutter (she used to be lethally dull when she was the original violin babe, but she's become a true great as she's gotten older)

Maxim Vengerov (the real greatest violinist of Hahn's generation)

Dora Schwarzberg

Joshua Bell (I'm kind of ashamed, but he really is as great as all those swooning old ladies say he is.)

Midori (again, believe the hype)

Frank Peter Zimmerman

Sakaya Shoji (she could give Janine Jansen a run for her money)

Baiba Skride (so could she, it really is remarkable how many great female violinists there are today, they easily beat their male counterparts)

Shlomo Mintz (what's happened to him lately?)

Lara St. John (yes, that Lara St. John)

Isabelle Faust

Itzhak Perlman (at least when he was in his prime)

Gyorgy Pauk (albeit now retired.)

Ida Haendel (still playing well into her eighties)

Ivry Gitlis (in his late eighties here, now age 90 and still playing!)

There are other violinists whom many music lovers find great too - Vadim Repin, Julian Rachlin, Viktoria Mullova, Leonidas Kavakos, Silvia Marcovici, Lisa Batiashvili, Nikolai Znaider, Sarah Chang, Renauld Capucon, Augustin Hadelich, Daniel Hope, Nicola Benedetti, Julia Fischer (Hilary's German twin), Christian Tetzlaff, Arabella Steinbacher, Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham, Kyoko Takezawa, Kyung Wha Chung, Cho-Liang Lin, Aaron Rosand -  but they strike me as technically well-equipped but too antiseptic. It felt tough to leave some of them off the list - particularly Shaham, Tetzlaff, and Daniel Hope. But in my opinion, they communicate too little real individuality, no inner world to draw us into. And that, ultimately, is what a great performer can do.

Monday, November 12, 2012

800 Words: Hilary Hahn - My Mortal Enemy


I should probably specify at the outset: Hilary Hahn is, to the best of my knowledge, completely unaware of our mutual enmity. The closest we ever came to meeting was backstage in the green room of Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at David Zinman's last concert as director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - she was an invited guest, I was an autograph seeker. 

(playing Sibelius's Violin Concerto in Munich. She was almost seventeen here but looked twelve.)

My first notification of the blight upon my life that is Hilary Hahn was when I was 9 years old and she was twelve. At a BSO Young People’s Concert, she came out and played the last movement of Saint-Saens’s Third Violin Concerto. My mother brought me to that concert because this girl was being advertised as potentially the most important violin prodigy since Jascha Heifetz or Yehudi Menuhin, and she was from Baltimore!! I remember thinking her tone was rather small, but that was probably because she was twelve. When I was twelve I had to give up practicing full-time due to the overwhelming stress of the demands, and with that decision I surrendered any hope of a distinguished career in classical music. And of all the decisions I had to make because of illnesses that struck me at far too young an age, none can, does, or could ever hurt more than that one. Ten years later, Hilary Hahn was accepted as probably the greatest violinist of her generation, and I was barely qualified to go to college. 

I wish I could say that my enmity of Hilary Hahn is simply the envy of a Salieri for a Mozart. But that implies that I was ever good enough at what I did to be Salieri (that would be thrilling!). My envious hatred of Hilary Hahn is not the Amadeus situation in which I secretly worship the thing I hate. I suppose it’s closer to Nixon’s obsessive hatred of Kennedy (for surely Richard Nixon is as mediocre as I). But I’d at least like to think that my hatred has a justifiable moral dimension in a more provable way than Nixon’s did of Kennedy.

(A Bach Fugue for unaccompanied violin. Perfection)

Hilary Hahn’s playing is everything I hate - not about music, but about life. There are those people - you all know them - people who just seem to jaunt through life with perfect intonation, gorgeous sound, intelligence in google quantity. Challenges for others seem to evaporate for them. How do they manage this? Because they are utterly superficial and dull as dishwater. If they weren’t playing the Berg Violin Concerto or curing cancer, they’d be perfectly happy to spend their entire lives listening to Mumford and Sons or watching Disney movies. All that intelligence, all that talent, and it’s used to the purpose of understanding precisely nothing. Behind all these gifts are people who are utterly vanilla and have no defining qualities as people but their excellence. They are uninterestingly perfect and perfectly uninteresting.

Hahn isn’t just technically perfect, she also has that easy command of musical language that organizes bunches of notes into sentences, and then into full paragraphs and pages with al the punctuation perfectly placed. The more difficult the piece, the easier it seems for her to tame it. It is as though the most difficult passages of Chaucer are lain before us in plain American English. And in the least 'human' works - Bach, Paganini, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky - Hilary Hahn sounds like a goddess. Everything about her playing has that same Heifetzian perfection. But it’s even more stupefying than Heifetz’s. Hahn’s playing never had Heifetz’s neurotic edge. Regardless of the piece, it unfurls with such incontrovertible logic that you wonder how anyone could ever have played it differently.

(Ralph Vaughan-Williams's The Lark Ascending. Jesus, even her tattoos are perfect...)

And if that isn’t enough to drive a could-have-been violinist insane, there’s the person behind the music. We’re told to believe that this prodigy could be entirely home-schooled, finishing her bachelor’s degree at 16, getting a second one at 19, be completely fluent in German and French, and still be the all-American girl next door. Hilary Hahn may be the greatest violin prodigy since Yehudi Menuhin, but apparently behind all the fuss she’s ‘just like you and me.’ Then came the Hilary Hahn ‘blog’ and the ‘vlog’ and the twitter account of her ‘violin case’ and the collaborations with Josh Ritter and Hauschka and the 27-encore commissions and the branching out into world music. So apparently this girl who will conquer the entire music world is as normal as the sun is light. 

(Bach's Chaccone. The divine piece gets Goddess-like perfection, and it's a total buzzkill.)

So near as I can tell, Hilary Hahn is a robot expertly assembled to do the best possible human impression. She’s the perfect incarnation of a violinist created to please her teachers - no mistakes, no controversial ideas, just a dutiful series of motions that she executes with absolute perfection. For me she’s every straight-A student I was smarter than who got into an Ivy League school by appearing to follow all the rules while I could barely get into college. She’s every idiot who makes $600,000 a year by age 30 while I couldn’t even pay my bills until two years ago. No other great violinist in history sounds so perfect, and no violinist plays as though they know less about life’s frustrations which make music so necessary. Hilary Hahn is every girl I’ve hated but secretly loved (or is it loved but secretly hated?) because excellence seems so easy for her. What can a ne’er-do-well guy like me be to a girl like her but something on the end of her stiletto? 

Compare Hilary Hahn to the real violinists and you see how much more there is to life. Hilary Hahn still plays like the girl who got straight-A’s, but Janine Jansen plays like a woman who gets two hours a week to play in an all-girl rock band where she can channel all the rage from work, marriage and parenting. Nigel Kennedy plays like the punk 20-something with an absentee dad who’s determined to get his online tattoo business off the ground. Leila Josefowicz plays like the girl who left behind all of the comforts of her Dad’s money to do research on vaccinations in the sub-Sahara. Maxim Vengerov plays like the ex-jock who learned to be nice to everybody as a kid because he has a younger brother with down syndrome. Thomas Zehetmair plays like the nerd who got beaten up as a kid but is now a world-famous neurological researcher at Hopkins. Gidon Kremer plays like the ex-hippie professor who left teaching so he could backpack Latin America before he hits 70. There is so much more to life than what you find in Hilary Hahn’s playing. Would that I could have expressed a little bit of that life myself. But apparently, in the milieu in which I grew up, you only had a chance if you passed through every arbitrary hoop and arrest your development to the point that your sole purpose for living is to please older authority figures well into your adulthood. Hilary Hahn, I hate you!

(call me?...)

(But she can totally rock Stravinsky)

Note: three years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post which had a rather different account of Hahn’s first concert, and of myself, on a blog I used to keep for two minutes. Which version is true? Well, both are...or neither...