"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
(updated below [Tues.])
There are 3 items, all related to books, which I wanted to note for the holiday:
(1) Over the next few weeks, I’ll be finishing my latest book, and am currently working with my editor — without much success — to select a title. For my prior book, I strongly disliked the title chosen by the publisher (“Great American Hypocrites”), and when I objected, was told that if I produced a better one, that would be used instead. After soliciting suggestions from various people, I submitted 10 alternatives, all of which were rejected as supposedly inferior to the one they had chosen. I then held a contest right here on the blog, where I briefly summarized the book’s themes and asked readers to suggest concise, creative titles (which is definitively not my forte). Over 1,000 were suggested, many of them superb, and after selecting the 20 best ones and submitting them to the publisher, they again rejected them all and insisted that theirs was better (the reality was they were convinced they had the ideal title, were intent on using it, and the suggestion that they’d change if it a better one was found was a pretext designed to placate my strong objection to it). That process nonetheless produced many outstanding suggestions, so I will try it again, this time with an editor who is genuinely open to title suggestions.
My current book documents the two-tiered system of law and justice that has emerged in America. The most powerful political and financial elites are virtually immunized from the rule of law, empowered to violate those laws with full-scale impunity and to act without any constraints, while the politically powerless are imprisoned with far greater ease and in far greater numbers than any other country on the planet. Even the most egregious elite transgressions — the pilfering and plundering that led to the 2008 financial crisis; the illegal surveillance, war and torture regime of the last decade; corporate crimes in virtually every realm — are shielded from accountability with demands for immunity and leniency, while ordinary Americans have the full weight of the criminal justice system mercilessly crashing down upon them for even petty offenses which are rarely punished in most of the civilized world. The book examines the implications for this development (what happens when two different sets of rules apply for the powerful and the powerless?), documents why the current system is fundamentally different than even the serious, well-known violations of “equality under the law” which have plagued American history, and describes how “law” and the justice system are used to entrench and bolster inequality rather than subvert it.
Please leave title suggestions in comments or send them to me via email. The winner will receive something or other — at the very least a free, signed book once it’s released and, if desired, credit in the Acknowledgment section.
(2) I periodically hear complaints — especially now that an election is approaching — that I devote insufficient time and attention to criticizing the American Right. I actually do write a fair amount of criticism of that faction, but the fact that it’s not my primary focus at this point is due to two factors: (1) I spent several years writing on a daily basis about the conservative movement, and during that time even wrote three books about them; my views on how pernicious that group is are not exactly hidden; and, more important, (2) it is the Democratic Party, not the GOP, which controls the White House and both houses of Congress. Since my interest is primarily in how political officials use, and abuse, their power — and in the establishment media’s relationship to those in power — the people in power are the ones about whom I write the most. Right now, that happens to be Democrats. Beyond that, there are literally thousands of Democratic websites and groups devoted on a daily basis to dissecting every utterance of Sarah Palin, right-wing polemicists and the like, and I just have little interest in replicating that.
That does not mean, however, that I find the American Right any less loathsome and dangerous than I did when I wrote about them on a virtually daily basis (i.e., when they were in power). A recently released paperback book by John Amato (founder of Crooks & Liars) and Dave Neiwert, with a Foreword by Digby – Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane – does a very good job of examining how the GOP has become even more primitive, warped and extremist than it was during the Bush years. I don’t actually agree with all of the views in this book; there is more legitimacy to some of the grievances spawning this development than the book allows. And, as I wrote the other day, I think much of the blame for why this populist anger has been exploited by the Right is because the Democratic Party and the Obama presidency have failed to address its anxieties. But none of that changes the fact that the American Right essentially embraces the full panoply of Bush-Cheney horrors, except in even more radical form, and Over the Cliff is an excellent book for understanding how and why that happened.
(3) Markos Moulitsas’ new book, also in paperback, examines the similarities between Islamic extremists and the American Right, and has spawned a fair amount of controversy, including in progressive circles. Numerous liberal critics have vehemently condemned the book — American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right – on the ground that it is deeply offensive and misguided to suggest that American conservatives are comparable to Muslim Terrorists (by which they mean, among others, the Taliban). I find some of these objections both absurd and quite revealing.
Obviously, some of this book is deliberately polemical. Moulitsas is well-aware that the mainstream American Right is not remotely as extreme as the Taliban even in some areas where they share common premises. Even the most hardened American social conservatives (at least the ones with any influence) don’t advocate the stoning of adulterers or throwing acid on the faces of girls who attend school. The difference between executing gays and wanting to deny them legal equality is obviously one of kind, not merely degree. In those areas where one finds such fundamental differences, the point of the book is clearly a rhetorical strategy, not a literal equation. The American Right has benefited politically by constantly suggesting a liberal sympathy, if not an outright alliance, with Islamic Terrorists, and Moulitsas’ argument seeks to subvert that tactic by linking conservative fanatics with their Islamic counterparts based on common views and impulses. It’s perfectly reasonable to debate whether that tactic is effective or constructive — I’m ambivalent about those questions — but it’s simply silly to impose on the book a literalism it plainly does not intend and then righteously rail against it on that basis (Digby has more on that issue here and here).
That said, there are areas — significant ones — where the actions of the American Right (and, for that matter, many Democrats who supported them) are literally comparable to the Taliban and Muslim extremists generally. In that regard, objections from progressive writers to Moulitsas’ book seem grounded in obnoxious jingoism and nationalistic exceptionalism: to wit, no matter how bad the American Right is, they are still Americans, and thus should never be compared to primitive, evil foreign Muslim jihadists. Illustrative of that mentality is this passage from Jamelle Bouie’s extremely negative and widely-cited review in The American Prospect:
Like Liberal Fascism, American Taliban is another entry in the tired genre of “my political opponents are monsters” . . . . Yes, progressives are depressed and despondent about the future, but that’s no reason for dishonesty and scaremongering, and it doesn’t excuse the obscenity of comparing our political opponents to killers and terrorists. As reality-based members of the American community, we have an obligation toward the truth, even when it isn’t particularly convenient.
In what universe is it “obscene” to compare the architects of the Iraq War, the torture regime, and endless War with Muslims “to killers and terrorists”? The comparison is true by definition. The people who launched the attack on Iraq are guilty of an aggressive war — what the Nuremberg prosecutors condemned as the “kingpin crime” that “holds together” all other war crimes — which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings, turned millions more into refugees, and destroyed an entire nation. The aptly named “Shock and Awe” was designed to terrify an entire civilian population into submission. John Podhoretz criticized the brutal assault on Fallujah for failing to exterminate all “Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35,” while his father has spent years agitating for a devastating military attack on Iran. At least 100 War on Terror detainees in American custody died as a result of their treatment, tens of thousands more (including clearly innocent ones) were put in cages for years with no due process (where many remain), and as recent mosque-related controversies reveal, a substantial portion of the American population craves a religious war with Islam. And that’s to say nothing of the acts of other countries which this faction supports: from mauling an imprisoned population in Gaza and attacking a harmless, civilian ship in international waters to propping up some of the most oppressive tyrannies on the planet, including many in the Muslim world.
Sometimes, one’s political opponents are “monsters” — or at least engage in genuinely monstrous acts — and what’s morally offensive is not those who point this out, but rather those who insist that the comparison not be uttered on the jingoistic ground of shared nationality. Moulitsas’ second chapter — entitled “War” – highlights this obvious though under-appreciated truth (emphasis in original):
Rather than marginalize and isolate the Islamic extremists, the American Taliban actively seek out that clash of civilizations. It’s no different than Osama bin Laden and his ideological ilk.
There are countless examples of America’s political leaders espousing a core mentality indistinguishable from those of the Islamic villains who are endlessly paraded before us. And Americans who crave endless war policies for whatever reasons — ideological and religious fervor or a self-interested desire to maximize power and profit — are just as addicted to perpetuating this conflict as the most radical Islamic leaders are. That the two sides in a protracted, violent conflict end up (or even begin) with more similarities than differences is hardly a new phenomenon. Historian Richard Hofstadter, in his influential 1964 Harper‘s essay entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” described this dynamic perfectly, in his section entitled “Emulating the Enemy.” Perpetual enemies often end up warring not because of their differences, but because their Manichean righteousness and paranoia of Others are identical, and drive them to extinguish one another.
Moulitsas is a self-described Democratic activist who wants to secure Democratic power, so the one deficiency of the book is that it fails to acknowledge the multiple policies he condemns which have been supported and enabled by his own party. But the similarity between the American Right’s aggression, tribalism, and violence and those of the Islamic extremists who are endlessly demonized in American political culture is an important one, and Moulitsas’ book is very worthwhile for that discussion alone. The reason these similarities are so rarely discussed is reflected by the angry reaction his book has generated even among his political allies in the progressive world: the one premise that never should be challenged is that Americans — even when they engage in violent, destructive and inhumane acts — are intrinsically good, well-intentioned, and even superior, and thus no comparison should be tolerated between them and those foreign Others who embody Pure Evil. Hence we find all sorts of angry and self-righteous recriminations against Moulitsas’ book for daring to compare crimes of the American Right to identical crimes committed by a bunch of primitive foreigners.
The endless, destructive War on Terror depends — like most wars do — on a cartoonish demonization of the Enemy as something utterly foreign, inhuman, and subject to entirely different drives than Us. Moulitsas’ book, at its best, destroys that rotted premise by highlighting the many similarities between Them and Us. Because that similarity is a great taboo — perhaps the greatest taboo — it has triggered all sorts of outrage: outrage that is actually a testament to the value of the argument he makes.
UPDATE: The response to my request for book title suggestions has been overwhelming and produced numerous outstanding, highly creative proposals: so much so that I’m now going to request that no more be submitted. I’m absolutely certain that the title will be selected from among these suggestions, and I really appreciate the feedback from everyone.
This, for me, underscores how truly valuable is a vibrant comment section. The effort to find a compelling title had been a fairly futile one notwithstanding the efforts of multiple people who do this sort of thing professionally. But by expanding the effort to thousands of people, the number of great ideas increased dramatically. That’s a microcosm of how a smart, engaged readership and commentariat can substantially improve the value of what one writes. I’m periodically mocked for my propensity to add multiple updates to my posts, but so often, my doing so is because readers/commenters point out added ideas, evidence, arguments, objections, etc. that I didn’t know or think of and which deserve attention or a response. The ability to interact and engage with readers, rather than speak to them in monologue form, has always been one of the things that has most appealed to me about writing a blog. Several of the posts I’ve written which received the most attention, made the biggest impact, came directly from readers/commenters.
For those reasons, I’m amazed when journalists scorn their comment sections and treat them like a nuisance or worse. The interactive aspect of writing on the Internet — being able immediately to hear from smart, opinionated, engaged readers who often know things that the writer doesn’t know — is one of the forum’s biggest advantages. It provides a crucial check (no factual, logical or grammatical errors remain undetected for very long), and the ability to quickly access the knowledge base of thousands and thousands of people at once is an irreplaceable resource. Of course, commenters (like every group) can sometimes be annoying, and for the thin-skinned, the criticisms to which one is continuously subjected render the entire process undesirable. But as this highly successful search for a creative book title reveals, the benefits so far outweigh the burdens that it’s not even a close call. Smart journalists see their readership as a great resource to be tapped, not as a passive audience to be ignored.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)