Sunday, February 17, 2013

The real reason for opposition to Hagel

Josh Marshall has a thoughtful essay on Talking Points Memo about the real source of the groundswell of opposition to the nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.
Hagel in himself is no singular figure. But he’s part of the Scowcroft/Brezinzski et al. running critique of Bush era foreign policy. It’s not just that he didn’t vote for this or that declaration about the Iranian government or doesn’t toe the Likud line on the Israel/Palestine front. He’s one of those people who just don’t think these issues should be the be all and end all of our role in the world at all. And that’s extremely threatening to some people.
... defining the boundaries of acceptable opinion is very important to the people opposing Hagel — drawing redlines around acceptable actions and statements. They’ve been highly successful marking these lines in the past. And Hagel has crossed a number of them.

That’s the rub of this.

It's a subtle conclusion to draw, and Marshall doesn't bother buttressing his opinion with hard evidence. I don't know whether I buy it. It is, however, a highly interesting take on this affair, and it would explain the suddenness and ferocity with which criticism of Hagel sprang up.

I haven't paid a lot of attention to Hagel's nomination. The little I've heard about his performance at his confirmation hearing doesn't give me a lot of confidence that he's a good person to have in such a high-profile position. Like it or not — and I'm not wild about it — part of a Cabinet Secretary's job is to be the public face of his or her department. If Hagel couldn't comport himself well in his hearing, how will he be at a press conference?

Even more disquieting is the possibility that his performance didn't (or didn't just) reflect a discomfort before a hostile audience, but instead indicated a fuzzy thinking process. That, we simply can't afford.

However, some of the nonsense I heard in the run-up to his hearing — about his alleged "softness" on Iran and coolness toward Israel — was just the rankest right-wing bullying. This nation's well-being cannot be tied to inflexible and arbitrary policies toward any nation. I am no fan of the theocracy in Iran, and I don't suggest we should cut off all aid to Israel. Yet it's simply logical and necessary to admit that Iran is more than sufficiently wealthy as a result of oil revenues to disregard U.S.-led sanctions, and that the U.S. has squandered prior opportunities to encourage Iran to steer a less confrontational path on its own. We can't afford to squander such opportunities in the future, should they arise. We have to talk to Iran at some level.

Similarly, Israel's ardent defenders in Washington cannot be allowed to gloss over Israel's deliberate inflaming of Arab and Muslim sensibilities by illegally building settlements in disputed territory. The fact that the Israeli government is hostage to its most ultra-Orthodox and inflexible elements is no reason the U.S. should be as well. Other nations routinely criticize the U.S. for stupid policies; we should damned well be free to criticize Israel for stupid policies too. (I have no more patience for the smug and fanatical certainties of the religious right wing in Israel than I have for those of the religious zealots in Iran, or in the U.S. for that matter. They're all nutcases who are endangering the populations in which they live.)

The point is, the opposition to Hagel's nomination before his hearing never seemed all that substantive, and I couldn't understand why it had gained such traction, much less held it for so long. Even today, Marshall notes:

I don’t get the sense that half the senators going nuts over Hagel’s nomination even grasp or care about this backstory.
A quietly-funded disinformation campaign would make a certain amount of sense. However, having seen just how eagerly (and foolishly) this nation's far right buys into even the most ludicrous of conspiracies (birtherism, anyone?), I'm disinclined to make much of Marshall's claim.

If there are reasons to reject Hagel, I think they come from his mediocre confirmation hearing, and not from any of the arrant nonsense peddled by charlatans and liars beforehand.

[UPDATE, 1 July 2013: Spelling correction — "Orthadox" --> "Orthodox"]

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Wisdom from Wayne Shorter

From a New York Times piece about saxophonist Wayne Shorter's upcoming new album, Without a Net:
“To me there’s no such thing as beginning or end,” Mr. Shorter said. “I always say don’t discard the past completely because you have to bring with you the most valuable elements of experience, to be sort of like a flashlight. A flashlight into the unknown.”
The key is to understand what "the most valuable elements of experience" are. Mindlessly keeping what was is not the point. You have to think.

That's the main point I wanted to make. The following is just an amusing side note, concerning pianist Danilo Pérez's initial discomfort playing with Shorter.

“It was scary, to be honest,” Mr. Pérez said of his early experience in the quartet. “It was a shock to put myself into a situation where I had no idea what was happening. Even when I listened back, I felt like an outsider: ‘What is that? What key are we in?’ ” He gradually made adjustments, including one to his practice regimen: for two or three hours at a stretch he would watch Tom and Jerry cartoons with the sound muted, making up a score.

Bourdain as narrator

From the beginning, Anthony Bourdain's unique cadences as a narrator on his show No Reservations caught my ear. They were off-putting at first, but as with almost everything, custom eventually reconciled me.

In his other (and presumably final) series for Travel Channel, The Layover, the production team has switched up the rhythms a little, and it seems he has followed suit in his voiceover. I'm not sure it's conscious, though, because the direction he has started to follow is even more off-putting. Bourdain has started to sound ... almost ... Shatneresque ... in his ... pauses.

Bourdain's appeal supposedly lies in his seeming naturalness in front of the camera: the audience gets the sense that he is being himself. You'd think by now, a decade or so into his TV career, he would have figured out how to sound that way, too. Yet he still comes off as self-conscious and ill at ease when he speaks, even when he isn't narrating. It just goes to show, I guess, that narration isn't as easy as it sounds.

Or perhaps he is a lot more camera-conscious, in speech and appearance, than we think.