"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)
Topics: Politics News
Much of the reaction to the article I wrote last Saturday regarding progressives, the Obama presidency and Ron Paul (as well as reaction to this essay by Matt Stoller and even this tweet from Katrina vanden Heuvel) relied on exactly the sort of blatant distortions that I began that article by anticipating and renouncing: that I was endorsing Paul as the best presidential candidate, that I was urging progressives to sacrifice reproductive rights in order to vote for him over Obama, that I “pretend[ed] that the differences between Obama and Paul on economics [and other domestic issues] are marginal”; that Paul’s bad positions negate the argument I made; that Ron Paul is my “hero,” etc. etc. So self-evidently petty and slimy are those kinds of distortions that (other than to note their falsehoods for the record) they warrant no discussion; indeed, as I wrote: “So potent is this poison that no inoculation against it exists” and would thus “proceed to make a couple of important points about both candidacies even knowing in advance how wildly they will be distorted.”
That said, it’s hard to believe that these distortions are anything but deliberate — deterrence-driven punishment for the ultimate Election Year crime of partisan heresy: i.e., suggesting that someone is uniquely advocating important ideas even though they lack a “D” after their name – given that (a) I expressly renounced in advance the beliefs now being attributed to me and, more important (b) the point I was actually making was clear and not all that complex. Here’s Political Science Professor Corey Robin explaining it:
Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating. . . . But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.
This, it’s clear, is why people like Glenn Greenwald say that Paul’s voice needs to be heard. Not, Greenwald makes clear, because he supports Paul, but because it is a terrible comment—a shanda for the left—that we don’t have anyone on our side of comparable visibility launching an attack on American imperialism and warfare. (Recalling what I said in the context of the death of Christopher Hitchens, I suspect this has something to do with our normalization and acceptance of war as a way of life.) . . . [Paul] reveals what’s not being said, or not being said enough, on our side.
One can agree or disagree with it, of course, but there’s simply no way to fail to understand that point (or, worse, to distort it into something it isn’t) absent a desire not to understand it. The probability that Ron Paul will win the GOP nomination or ever be President is, in my view, non-existent. Whether one should support his candidacy for President or whether he would make a good President is completely irrelevant to the argument I (and Stoller) made; the point is exactly what Robin describes there. And that’s just obvious (for an excellent examination of Paul’s debate-enhancing benefits, see this video clip of a discussion about Paul from Glenn Loury and John McWhorter).
The one addition I would make to Robin’s summary of my position is that the problem isn’t merely that there is nobody else with a national platform besides Paul making these arguments on issues that are vital, not secondary. The problem is worse than that: it’s that the national standard-bearer of progressives, of Democrats — Barack Obama — is largely on the opposite side of these questions. More important, his actions are the antithesis of them. Given that the presidential campaign will dominate political discourse for the next year and shape how Americans understand politics generally, it’s impossible for these views to be aired by confining oneself to cheerleading for the Obama 2012 campaign because the President is an opponent of those views. Thus, the only way these views will get an airing is by finding some other tactic, some other means, for having them heard.
The chances that any of these issues will be debated in an Obama/Romney presidential contest are exactly zero. On all of these issues — Endless War, empire, steadfast devotion to the Israeli government, due-process-free assassinations, multiple-nation drone assaults, escalating confrontation with Iran, the secretive, unchecked Surveillance and National Security States, the sadistic and racist Drug War, the full-scale capture of the political process by bankers and oligarchs — Romney is fully supportive of President Obama’s actions (except to the extent he argues they don’t go far enough: and those critiques will almost certainly be modulated once the primary is over, resulting in ever greater convergence between the two). As National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh put it yesterday: “In truth, Obama and Romney are far closer in mindset and philosophy than anyone is willing to acknowledge just now.” He adds:
Obama, despite his image, has sought to placate business and left Wall Street largely intact, and he is taking a far tougher line on foreign policy–one that reflects a traditional GOP “realpolitik” view and a dramatic ratcheting up of covert war– than is generally acknowledged, even when it comes to China.
Romney, increasingly desperate to win over his base against the onslaught of “Not-Romneys,” has allowed his rhetoric to grow more inflamed on the trail, including commitments to a balanced-budget amendment and partially voucherizing Medicare as well as eliminating Obamacare. But based on his history, if he gets the nomination he is unlikely to follow through fully on these overheated pre-primary pledges and do many things dramatically differently, either on the economy or foreign policy. The problems of slow growth, chronic deficits and an overextended military will inevitably lend themselves to similar solutions from either an Obama or a Romney administration.
Matt Taibbi put it even more bluntly:
The 2012 presidential race officially begins today with the caucuses in Iowa, and we all know what that means . . .
Nothing. . . .
The reason 2012 feels so empty now is that voters on both sides of the aisle are not just tired of this state of affairs, they are disgusted by it. They want a chance to choose their own leaders and they want full control over policy, not just a partial say. There are a few challenges to this state of affairs within the electoral process – as much as I disagree with Paul about many things, I do think his campaign is a real outlet for these complaints – but everyone knows that in the end, once the primaries are finished, we’re going to be left with one 1%-approved stooge taking on another.
Most likely, it’ll be Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama, meaning the voters’ choices in the midst of a massive global economic crisis brought on in large part by corruption in the financial services industry will be a private equity parasite who has been a lifelong champion of the Gordon Gekko Greed-is-Good ethos (Romney), versus a paper progressive who in 2008 took, by himself, more money from Wall Street than any two previous presidential candidates, and in the four years since has showered Wall Street with bailouts while failing to push even one successful corruption prosecution (Obama).
There are obvious, even significant differences between Obama and someone like Mitt Romney, particularly on social issues, but no matter how Obama markets himself this time around, a choice between these two will not in any way represent a choice between “change” and the status quo. This is a choice between two different versions of the status quo, and everyone knows it.
For those who are extremely dissatisfied with the status quo in American political life and are seeking ways to change it, supporting one of the two major-party candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign as the principal form of activism offers no solution. That’s not an endorsement for resignation, apathy, non-voting, voting for a third party, or anything else. It’s just a simple statement of fact: on many issues that progressives themselves have long claimed are of critical, overarching importance (not all, but many), there will be virtually no debate in the election because there are virtually no differences between the two candidates and the two parties on those questions. In the face of that fact, there are two choices: (1) simply accept it (and thus bolster it) on the basis that the only political priority that matters is keeping the Democratic Party and Barack Obama empowered; or (2) searching for ways to change the terms of the debate so that critical views that are now excluded by bipartisan consensus instead end up being heard.
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One person who did understand the point here, to his credit, is Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum. His contribution to the ensuing debate was at least responsive and honest by addressing the point actually being made. In two separate posts, Drum insists that Paul does not even provide these debate-enhancing benefits because, in sum, he is a “crackpot” and “crackpots don’t make good messengers.” Thus, counsels Drum: “Find other allies.” Moreover: “Politics may make for strange bedfellows, but there are limits. There are some allies that aren’t worth having.”
There are many points worth making about Drum’s argument. To begin with (and this is somewhat of an ancillary point, but still important in my view): labeling people “crazy” as a means of dismissing their views — basically depicting political disagreement as a mental illness — is one of the oldest and stalest means of discrediting people who dissent; it’s basically the prime weapon used to enforce mainstream orthodoxy and punish dissidents. Taken to its most extreme and odious conclusion, the Soviet Union institutionalized anyone challenging Communist orthodoxy in mental hospitals, and China now does the same. Charles Krauthammer continuously abused his psychiatric license to diagnose Bush critics as suffering from mental illnesses and to delegitimize (progressive) criticisms of Bush as a form of insanity; to accomplish this, he even purported to identify a new disease, Bush Derangement Syndrome, which is the exact phrase (with “Obama” symbolically replacing “Bush”) that has now seamlessly been adopted and applied to critics of the current President by some of the most rabid Obama defenders.
More important, those who like to call others “crackpots” and “crazies” in political discourse almost always mean nothing more than: the person expresses views that are outside the bipartisan mainstream. Any idea that is safely ensconced within the bipartisan mainstream is, by definition, sane (even if it’s wrong: even if it’s crazy). In Newsweek last year, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a superb essay on the manipulation of the “crazy” label in politics, and in doing so, made clear that if you really want to use the term, it applies just as much — at least — to the presidential candidate and party Drum faithfully supports as it does to anyone else:
Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. . . . These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong . . .
If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.
That’s why Paul is routinely referred to as crazy, while someone like Newt Gingrich is not. Personally, I’d say that the most reliable hallmark of actual “craziness” in the political context is taking action that you know will do little other than perpetuate the political status quo (unless you’re a member of America’s oligarchical class, in which case that course of action is entirely sane). See also: Marcy Wheeler responding to Drum’s claims about “crackpots” as poor messengers.
But the most important point to make about Drum’s response is that he never bothers to identify the alternatives to Paul’s candidacy when it comes to challenging these bipartisan pieties. If Paul is such an inadequate vehicle for having these ideas heard — and everyone pointing to the benefits of Paul’s candidacy, especially on the Left, understands perfectly what his faults are — why doesn’t Drum unveil the roster of national political figures with a serious platform who are making these points instead?
The answer is obvious: there are none. There are, to be sure, some very good, isolated members of Congress, and there are some genuinely superb Congressional candidates (like long-time anti-war activist and corporate-media critic Norman Solomon, who I’d genuinely love to see elected to Congress). But it is major-party presidential candidates who dominate political discourse, especially in election years. I really would like for someone to tell me: who else is going to inject this particular, extraordinarily important critique of American imperialism and exceptionalism into mainstream political discourse? As Robert Wright (who has long been one of the few voicing this “Imagine” critique) points out: nobody is, which is why “Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.” Andrew Sullivan also rightly points out:
Who else, one wonders, would Kevin want people to vote for if they want a real shift away from aggression abroad, an imperial presidency at home and a drug war whose victims count in the millions. Obama? The man whose response to marijuana legalization was to laugh out loud? Who just signed into law the right of a president to seize any citizen at will and detain him or her indefinitely without trial? The president who launched a war in Libya and refused even to ask for Congress’s approval after two months? Who else on the right?
If you don’t really care about these issues — war, empire, the denial of due process, suffocating secrecy, ongoing killing of foreign civilians, oligarchical manipulation of the Fed and other government policies, militarized foreign policy and police practices, etc. — then it’s easy to blithely dismiss the need to find some way to challenge the bipartisan consensus on those issues. For those for whom these issues aren’t priorities, I think you’ll hear the type of dismissive response as Drum voices: go find someone else with a comparable platform who can amplify these views (not that there’s anyone else I can think of).
And that, to me, is the vital point: despite vocally feigning grave concern about these issues during the Bush years, they are not a priority for many progressives precisely because they no longer provide any means of obtaining partisan advantage. How can you pretend to vehemently oppose the slaughter of foreign civilians, the deprivation of due process, a posture of Endless War, radical secrecy, etc., when the President behind whom you’re faithfully marching is an aggressive advocate and implementer of those very policies? It’s certainly possible — based on lesser-of-two-evils rationale — to vote for a President who does these things while simultaneously opposing those policies. But for those who insist that all political salvation lies exclusively within the Democratic Party: the only course of action to reconcile these conflicts is to de-prioritize them, to decide they no longer really matter, and thus remain content with a President and a Party who does these things with such abandon.
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This is what led to one of the most extreme episodes of cognitive dissonance I’ve encountered in some time. As part of the progressives/Paul debate, I actually read the following passage approvingly cited and adopted by one of the largest and most influential liberal blogs (albeit not by the writer responsible for its being influential):
For a liberal like me, who is primarily interested in the well-being of the American middle-class and in providing opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc., I just don’t see why I should be “challenged” by Ron Paul. I understand that if you’re a liberal who is primarily interested in civil liberties and a less bellicose foreign policy, then you might be conflicted about Paul. But to me, he’s just another racist asshole who wants to fuck the American middle-class.
So apparently, in order to be a liberal who is content with the Democratic Party and the incumbent President, one must be “primarily interested in the well-being of the American middle-class” (rather than the fate of those irrelevant, dying, occupied and indefinitely imprisoned foreigners or, presumably, America’s lower classes), and must further de-prioritize “civil liberties and a less bellicose foreign policy” (meaning little things like preemptive war, killing civilians, imprisonment and assassinations without due process, vast secrecy powers, etc.). Who knew?
I can say this rather definitively: I wrote primarily about these issues during the Bush years and I never once heard any progressive — literally never once — say or even imply that these issues were receiving too much attention, that too much importance was being placed on them, that what really mattered was how Americans are treated economically and not those obscure foreigners or all this academic chatter about “due process” and checks on presidential power. But now, if you believe these issues are important, you’re some sort of fringe figure with strange, obscure boutique interests (or, to use this same liberal blogger’s phrase applied to me: you’re guilty of “civil-liberties-above-all-else” mania (is that an upgrade from what Joe Klein used to call me: “civil liberties extremist”?)). We learn from that same liberal writer (who is actually a Democratic Party operative) that “Liberalism is and has always been about intervention” (emphasis in original). Did anyone hear anything about that requirement from 2001 through 2008? My how times have changed.
But this is a necessary psychological tactic in order to reconcile steadfast support for a President who tramples upon values that one once claimed to find so critical: oh, those issues? War, due process, civil liberties, transparency, restraints on executive power. Eh – they aren’t that important. Someone who insists that the only legitimate means of political expression is to march behind President Obama and the Democratic Party is forced into that radical rearranging of priorities. Consider the last paragraph written by Drum in his most recent post on Paul’s candidacy:
I’m in favor of a less interventionist foreign policy, a view that has plenty of voices these days not named Ron Paul, but I’m not a hardcore non-interventionist like Paul. If Iran seriously tried to mine the Strait of Hormuz, for example, I’d fully expect the U.S. Navy to put a stop to it, even if that meant sinking a few Iranian vessels.
Look at how casually he calls for war with Iran — like a cafeteria patron choosing his lunch menu. There’s no consideration of alternatives, nor is there any appreciation for the context: namely, what Drum’s President and party have been doing to Iran that has precipitated this tension.
To underscore why that is so important to the point here, consider what happened in 2007 when a conservative blogger and law professor, Glenn Reynolds, suggested that the U.S. begin assassinating Iranian scientists. Numerous people — such as Law Professor Paul Campos and myself — pointed out how warped and criminal that idea was. One of those most vehement in expressing horror and disgust at this proposal was none other than Kevin Drum, who went so far as to denounce it as Terrorism:
I imagine a lot of people agree with [Reynolds], but his recommendation really demonstrates the moral knot caused by George Bush’s insistence that we’re fighting a “war on terror.” After all, killing civilian scientists and civilian leaders, even if you do it quietly, is unquestionably terrorism. That’s certainly what we’d consider it if Hezbollah fighters tried to kill cabinet undersecretaries and planted bombs at the homes of Los Alamos engineers.
Fast forward three years. Iranian nuclear scientists are actually being murdered. That is almost certainly happening through some combination of Israeli and American actions — at the very least with the approval and complicity of the Obama administration. Where is the outrage and denunciation that was spewed at a mere blogger for suggesting on the Internet that this should be done? Now that it’s actually being done, doesn’t it necessarily mean — using Drum’s reasoning when aimed at Reynolds — that President Obama is a “terrorist”? And if so, isn’t it understandable how eager some people are to find means of doing something other than steadfastly devoting oneself to this politician and working for his re-empowerment by, for instance, changing the terms of the debate?
I actually don’t believe that the progressive reaction to this discussion is about Ron Paul. The same anger would be provoked by favorably comparing any political figure outside of the Democratic Party to President Obama on important issues, especially in an election year (I can guarantee that the same reaction would be triggered by pointing to the benefits of, say, Gary Johnson, who just scored the highest on the ACLU’s Civil Liberties report card). That, as I suggested in my first article, is viewed as the supreme sin, the one that must trigger oceans of denunciation and attack in order to deter similar acts of heresy. As former Dodd campaign aide and SEIU activist Matt Browner Hamlin explained in an excellent analysis:
What’s remarkable to me is the extent to which any approving citation by liberals like Greenwald or Stoller of Ron Paul’s notably good positions on foreign policy and the drug war is how reflexively they get accused of supporting Ron Paul or condoning of Paul’s reprehensible racist newsletters. Greenwald goes so far as to spend eight paragraphs explaining and predicting how frequently people make tribal responses to any criticism or support of a given pol, thereby assuming statements like “Ron Paul is to the left of Obama on surveillance,” means “I support Ron Paul over Obama.” Nonetheless, that’s exactly the sort of response Greenwald received (as we see with tweets from these prominent liberal bloggers).
The mere mention of an alternative to Obama, be it a primary challenge, a third party challenge, a Republican to his left on many issues or whatever else, simply causes fits. It’s remarkable to watch, especially as it relates to positions where Obama has been unquestionably not what the Democratic Party has sold us for the last eighty years. . . .
But what makes me particularly mad is the notion that speaking approvingly of a politician who is anti-war, anti-surveillance state, and pro-civil liberties, while also seeking to reduce the power of the elite-serving Federal Reserve is something that is simply improper for liberals, especially when a Democrat sits in the White House. . . . .Or to put it differently, you can’t be an honest supporter of Occupy Wall Street if you oppose criticizing the President on issues of war, surveillance, civil liberties, and Wall Street power.
The point is not to delegitimize the viewing of at Ron Paul’s candidacy as providing an important antidote to some of President Obama’s grave moral and political failings. The real point is to delegitimze any effort to turn elsewhere away from President Obama or to do anything to point out that he suffers grave moral and political failings at all (here is the scorn Drum heaped on the Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 who challenged many of these same policies). The mission here is to enforce partisan loyalty: criticize all you want, but stay loyally in the fold. Even as a means to expand and improve the range of debate, suggesting that someone may be comparatively superior to President Obama on vital issues — especially when that someone is not a loyal member of the Democratic Party — is the real sin.
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One final point that should be made: I do not believe that the issues on which I principally focus are objectively The Most Important Ones. There are many issues of vital importance that I write about rarely or almost never: climate change, tax policy, abortion, even the issue which affects me most personally: gay equality. None of us can write about every issue meaningfully. The issues on which I focus are ones where I believe I can contribute expertise, or express views and points not being heard elsewhere. But there are many other issues of genuine importance, and I have no objection to those who, when forced to choose, prioritize those concerns over the ones about which I write most frequently. That is why I wrote — and meant — that “there are all sorts of legitimate reasons for progressives to oppose Ron Paul’s candidacy on the whole” and “it’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else.”
But what I also know is that Democrats generally and progressives specifically claimed to view these issues as one of grave importance during the Bush years — when railing about SHREDDING THE CONSTITUTION or CIVILIAN DEATHS or LEGAL BLACK HOLES or AUTHORITARIAN SECRECY conferred partisan advantage. To suddenly declare now that these issues are of marginal importance only, or that efforts to find a way to counter the bipartisan consensus on them are illegitimate or destructive, is intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind. It’s unfortunate that both political parties, and the current President, are largely in agreement on these vital issues. Finding ways to subvert that consensus is imperative for anyone who actually believes in their importance.
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I was on RT last night with the excellent and smart Alyona Minkovski, discussing Obama’s signing of the indefinite detention bill, as well as general American opposition to Arab democracy:
UPDATE: A few related points:
(1) In The Nation, Katha Pollitt writes about Paul and says: “I, too, would love to see the end of the ‘war on drugs’ and our other wars. I, too, am shocked by the curtailment of civil liberties in pursuit of the ‘war on terror,’ most recently the provision in the NDAA permitting the indefinite detention, without charge, of US citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism.” But she then claims: ”Salon’s Glenn Greenwald is so outraged that progressives haven’t abandoned the warmongering, drone-sending, indefinite-detention-supporting Obama for Paul that he accuses them of supporting the murder of Muslim children.” Seriously: if there’s any way at all within the confines of the English language to make even clearer that I’m arguing no such thing, please let me know.
(2) As for Drum’s insistence that it’s inherently wrong to ally with Paul for any reason, does that apply to Barney Frank, Alan Grayson, and Dennis Kucinich, all of whom have done exactly that? Indeed, in 2008 Kucinich said he would consider Paul for his Vice Presidential pick (Paul said the same about Kucinich).
(3) In the 1990s, John Yoo attacked President Clinton for abusing executive power; today, he attacks President Obama for doing so; in between, when there was a GOP President, he essentially insisted that Presidents were omnipotent. This is the sort of party-in-power-dependent hackery that is nothing short of loathsome, and that’s equally true when it occurs in the other direction.
(4) Nathan Fuller has a good post on this Paul debate and what it reflects about Democratic Party priorities.
(5) In The New York Times today, Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist of the IMF, examines Ron Paul’s views on banks and the finance system and, while disagreeing with some of those views, insists that they deserve to be taken seriously (these views “tend to be dismissed out of hand by many. That’s a mistake, because Mr. Paul makes many sensible and well-informed points”) and offer real value in being aired (“the Federal Reserve has become, in part, a key mechanism through which large banks are rescued from their own folly”). That last point is, as Taibbi suggests, exactly why the finanical establishment would destroy Paul’s candidacy if it ever threatened to succeed; it’s also exactly why we should welcome that view being aired.
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)