Monday, September 22, 2008

Dr. Dog: Fate

It sometimes feels as though there are, in the world of indie-rock, only two available attitudes towards the past: reverence and scorn. In the former corner you have the retro-punks, the tie-dyed jam bands, the alt-country troubadours lovingly curating the mud cakes on their vintage cowboy boots. In the other corner there are the innovators, self-consciously crafting glockenspiel-driven polkas in quintuple time, steering their industrial-hobo-bop twelve-pieces out in search of the musical hinterlands, a border vanishing so rapidly that by now only the most willfully obscure and sadistically unpleasant tunesmiths are allowed entry. Caught between stultifying nostalgia and forbidding futurism, indie-rock, unlike pop, rarely seems to exist in the here-and-now.

Forgive Philadelphia's Dr. Dog if they seem less than concerned with such music-writerly quandaries -- they're too busy touring behind their wonderful new album Fate, which, rather than carefully recreating the past, opts to drag it kicking and screaming into the present. Unrepentantly derivative and deliriously catchy, the band happily cops moves from the Beach Boys, the Band, the Kinks and the Coasters, brewing them together into a jumbled, overloaded retro-rock stew. It is, admittedly, an album that would sound most at home on seventies FM radio, but it has a gathering urgency that wipes away any trace of nostalgia. While a lesser group might pay homage to their favorite bands, Dr. Dog just swipes their sounds and makes them their own. "I'll take what I want," goes the chorus of "Army of Ancients," and it could be Dr. Dog's manifesto. Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain: lousy bands imitate; great bands steal.

Which isn't to say that Dr. Dog are great band -- not yet, anyway; Fate can be muddled at times, and even some of its better songs are oddly forgettable -- but they sure are pretty damned good. "The Breeze" opens the album, riding a hazy, folky snatch of melody into a voice-drenched Brian Wilson chorus before dissolving into an odd, circular woodwind riff. In "Hang On," the album's best song and the band's greatest accomplishment to date, the staccato verse glides downriver into the passionate yet exhausted refrain: "What you thought was a hurricane was just the rustling of the wind," sings frontman Scott McMicken, splitting the difference between relief and disappointment. That's the big theme of the album: inevitability, and the disillusionment and consolation that it brings. The price, in other words, of fate: "Down down down, moon gonna fall down. Thump thump thump, house gonna fall down. Chop chop chop, tree gonna fall down. Down down down, down to the bottom," McMicken cheers on the ironically titled "Old Days," sounding grimly delighted by the certainty of all this destruction and decay. It's a grand literary theme, and the lyrics don't quite do it justice -- thankfully, though, they treat it with a light touch, invoking heavy questions about mortality and freedom of choice, then dismissing them with a cheerful shrug and an infectious hook.

Dr. Dog has always drawn much of its power from the tension between order and chaos. The woozy, mid-afternoon haze of their sound masks the underlying craft and the density of arrangement. The songs are heavily layered, overstuffed with harmonies and piano riffs, vocal hooks and bridges -- an effect that could easily lead to stultifying bloat if it weren't for the palpable joy and good humor that bubble up through even their most multi-tracked productions. Their Brian Wilson tendencies are undercut by their post-punkish love of a good sonic mess. The whole ramshackle house of cards feels constantly on the verge of collapsing, but each song manages to hang together for long enough to deliver Fate's repeated message: We're all doomed anyway, so let's go out singing, drinking and laughing.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

If I were Brad DeLong, I'd call this a death spiral

I'd like to say I've been following the situation in Zimbabwe with great interest, but I've basically been getting all my information from Chris Blattman's excellent development economics blog. However, it does seem to me that you shouldn't, in the course of a single article, credit a man for "successfully negotiating peace resolutions in Congo, Sudan, and, most recently, Zimbabwe", and then immediately claim that he "earned ignominy ... for refusing to join other world leaders in condemning Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's brutal and ruinous rule", as if these two things existed in entirely separate, unrelated universes.

In this case, though, it might not be the Washington Post's fault exactly, but rather our stupid, stupid world for being a place where Mbeki has to take crap for resolving a crisis Zimbabwe when everyone else was standing around with their thumbs up their asses.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rah-Rah Rasputin

Over the past couple of weeks, the Russians have been up to their old tricks: helping Cuba build a space program, selling military technology to Iran and Venezuela, test-firing a new long-range missile, sending a fleet into the Carribean and claiming dominion over the North Pole. (That said, once you've planted a flag on the Arctic seabed it's all good.) Oh, right, and the whole "invading another sovereign nation" thing.

Russia's recent shenanigans prompted Secretary of State Condi Rice to scold the Russians at length for their military adventures and assorted ne'er do well tendencies. I particularly enjoyed this part:

Russia’s attack on Georgia merely proved what we had already known – that Russia could use its overwhelming military advantage to punish a small neighbor... Russia’s invasion of Georgia has achieved – and will achieve – no enduring strategic objective... their choices could put Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance.

In a display of appalling racial insensitivity, the Russians in the audience burst into laughter and began banging pots and kettles together while chanting "black, black, black." Let me put it another way: when people talk about America's diminished standing abroad, they are referring to our inability to use the limp noodles of international norms/law to chastise other nations (or get others to do so on our behalf with a straight face). What I'm getting at is what every IR nerd secretly loves about the Russians: they just don't give a shit. Human rights? Fuck 'em. Democratic norms? Don't care. Rule of law? Go take a flying fuck at the moon. Which we own.

The last Russian leader to actually give a shit was Gorbachev, and that didn't really work out so well for him. Point being, this is not a new line of Russian foreign policy. From Tsarist times through the fall of the USSR, Russia has always played bare-knuckle politics with the rest of the world, and is ideally positioned to do so in the next few years. The interesting question is why they've started up again, and while I'm no commie-ologist, I'll speculate a bit below.

1. Opportunity--For a long time after the fall of the USSR, the balance of forces was so lopsided that the Russians, with virtually no relevant institutional power (not in NATO, etc) was basically unable to successfully oppose US measures in Europe and the Middle East. What coalition did they have? As they would see in the march to Iraq, the UK would bugger itself with a harpoon to avoid pissing off the US, and while France and Germany weren't that extreme, their strategic interest coincided with US interest far more than it did with Russian interests. In short, they couldn't insert themselves into the Cold War old boys network, because that network was built for the express purpose of not including Russia. The US misadventure in Iraq means that our forces are insufficient to either deter or contain Russia's ambitions vis-a-vis third rate countries like Georgia. In the end, while Condi talks a good game, she's basically saying to Europe "we got shit, it's up to you guys."

2. Strategic Interest--The "color revolutions" and NATO expansion have sharply curtailed what was traditionally Russia's sphere of influence. While NATO is no longer explicitly a hostile military alliance, we can forgive Russian strategic thinkers for feeling a little bit hemmed in by nations of questionable friendliness. It turns out, one way of opening a region up is to take it over and build bases/install friendly leaders. Another way is by building friendly relations with other powers opposed to the dominant paradigm.

3. Nationalism--Inasmuch as the end of the Cold War was a victory for the USA, it was a defeat for Russia. Although many sectors of Russian society railed against the oppressive policies of the USSR, there was a profound sense of national humiliation that spread throughout the Russian Federation in the aftermath of the fall. I wouldn't posit nationalism as a cause of Russia's ambitions, I would say that the legacy of that humiliation means that Russia flexing its muscles on the international stage is unlikely to meet a great deal of criticism at home. In short, it functions as an enabler.

The real question is how the international community will respond to these provocations, but my feeling is that it's hard to punch someone while you're busy grabbing your ass with both hands, but we'll see. One of the problems with the current US-led order is that there's no #2 to hold the fort while we're busy fucking up half a world away.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Tannhauser has stupid dogs and tried to spin it into some larger bullshit point.

Friday, September 12, 2008

James Fallows On My Dick

James Fallows makes similar points, without the use of the Terminator. We are therefore reluctantly forced to regard his post as inferior. But seriously, read it. It's a good post.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Intro to Just War Theory w/the Terminator!

Now, anyone who's taught anything in a formal (in other words, graded) environment is intimately familiar with the expression on Sarah Palin's face when she's asked about the Bush Doctrine. It's the expression every student wears when they're asked a question they have no fucking idea how to answer. It's the facial analogue to the thought "Oh fuck, I'm fucked now. Time to look attentive and talk about something vaguely related to the question and see if I can salvage anything from this mess." We've all worn it, and we've all seen others wear it.

Still, seeing someone who could potentially be President of the United States of America wearing it when confronted with a fairly elementary foreign policy question does not inspire a great deal of confidence.

That aside, Sarah Palin's interview provides the opportunity for me to do one of my favorite things: explain irritatingly complex concepts in a simple fashion using pop-culture iconography. So, when Mrs. Palin is asked about the Bush Doctrine, her response is:

"Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend."

That statement actually makes a terrifying amount of sense, and is a position well-supported by international law and just war theory. It's a sane position to take. The problem is, it's not the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine is about preventive war, not preemptive war. The crucial difference is the idea of "imminence." Arnold Schwarzenegger will explain, in the thickest Austrian accent he can muster (you might want to read this section aloud for maximum enjoyment):

FTB: So, Arnold, when you were sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, would that be analogous to preemptive or preventive war?

AS: That would be a lot like preventive war. You see, the goal was to terminate Sarah Connor in order to prevent John Connor from being born, thereby ending the threat he would later pose to Skynet as an adult leader of the resistance. Paradoxically, our attempt to kill Sarah Connor ended up creating exactly the situation we were trying to prevent. [ironic, vaguely threatening laughter]However, the situation was a little more complicated because of time travel--I had certain knowledge that John Connor would be a threat to Skynet because I came from the future.

FTB: And why would that course of action be frowned upon in the international community?

AS: Well, you see, in a world as complex as ours it is hard to accurately project the costs and consequences of our actions over a long period of time. If a nearly omniscient and singleminded artificial intelligence and its time-traveling nearly-indestructible cyborg assassin couldn't prevent one measly human female from conceiving a rebel leader, what hope can there be for a disjointed herd of puny humans striving to accomplish a far more ambitious goal? And, in the meantime, I murdered a lot of innocent people who were only tangentially related to event I was programmed to prevent.

FTB: You the terminator, or you the Governor of California?

AS: Yes.

FTB [Nervously]: So, uh, can you give us an analogy or example of preemptive war?

AS: You will remember that scene in the nightclub when I am advancing on Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese is at the bar, and he shoots me with the sawed-off shotgun right before I shoot her with my gun? That is preemptive war. I am about to kill her, and Kyle has a limited number of options and a sharply limited timeframe in which to consider them. In other words, the threat to his charge is imminent. In this case, his application of force against my robust hyperalloy endoskeleton was his only hope for seizing the element of surprise and perhaps disrupting the otherwise imminent termination of Sarah Connor and thus protected under international and intertemporal law.

The next time you're hitting on a hot chick at an IR conference and she flips her hair and asks you what the difference between prevention and preemption is, you can refer back to his handy explanation and work your best Ahnold impression. And who knows? She might even overlook your flabby midsection, pasty skin and watery, nearsighted eyes and decide to go for it.


The Bullshit Express

Does Sarah Palin have "foreign policy experience?" Honestly, I can't believe this is even a question. Let's take a moment to savor some of the arguments advanced by the GOP and various talking heads.

1. Sarah Palin has FPE because Alaska is next to Russia.

2. Sarah Palin has FPE because Alaska is next to Russia. [Cindy McCain Trance Remix]

I'll address these two "arguments" together. I'm man enough to admit that from time to time I wake up sweating in the night, my sleep disturbed by a vision of Putin's long and sinister shadow obscuring the moonlight from my bedroom window. But let's be clear, that shadow is cast from Moscow and not Kamchatka. Alaska has as much to fear from the USSR Russian Federation as Los Angeles had to fear from the Boer War.

3. Sarah Palin has FPE because she is Commander in Chief of the Alaskan National Guard [Tucker Bounds: America's Strategic Schadenfreude Reserve]

As Campbell Brown so ably points out, overseas deployment of the National Guard is handled by the Pentagon, not Sarah Palin. And, as he was happy to clarify, the commander of the AKNG also has a fairly substantial say in what his men and women do with themselves.

4. Sarah Palin has FPE because she learned it through osmosis.

Learning through osmosis was my undergraduate euphemism for "sleeping through calculus class." To put this absurdity in perspective, a former roommate of mine has a Jindo that was bred in South Korea. Now, if we're going to subscribe to the "clouds of foreign policy expertise clustered around foreign hotspots" theory it would seem like we might reasonably expect there to be great roiling fogs of it throughout Korea. Seems like that dog ought to be up to speed on theories of deterrence, nuclear nonproliferation policy and the balance of power in Northeast Asia. Except, OH WAIT THAT'S NOT HOW SHIT WORKS! DOGS CAN'T TALK!

But seriously, I've spend a lot of time in planes, where the air is positively thick with aeronautical expertise. I still look out the window at the flaps and think "how quaint, the wings are moving." And I'm sure the world is just full of people who spend a significant portion of their days riding around in cars and have accordingly developed vast reserves of mechanical expertise. So let's be clear:


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Great Article

Ken Tremendous on Bruce Jenkins and his mediocre defense of complete games. However, in spite of Bruce's deeply retarded arguments, I still really enjoy watching a pitcher finish a game.

Since the general election is underway and Sarah Palin has provided numerous opportunities for me to rant about "foreign policy experience" I promise we'll get back to politics soon.