Burnout break

I feel like I haven’t had a day free from writing about something for somebody in weeks, which is probably close to accurate, and I’m in desperate need of a day or so off. So posting may be pretty light around here for a day or two while I do something crazy like go see a movie or try to land a regular paying job of some form. Please stick around, things will be back to normal presently.

A tale of two vice presidents

In Iraq, new Vice President Nouri al-Maliki (where have I heard that name before?) has been spending time in his new job making life difficult for the guy occupying his old job:

Attempts by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to distance himself from the legacy of his predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki have created a rift between the two that is hindering attempts to appoint ministers to key posts, an informed source told Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat the conflict between the two men “revolves around a number of important matters, the most important of which is Maliki’s insistence, along with that of his supporters within the State of Law coalition, on submitting Hadi Al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Organization . . . as a candidate for minister of interior, something which Abadi rejects.”

Before it tries to go straight and redefine itself as a political party, the Badr Organization was known as the Badr Brigades, which maybe gives you an idea where this is leading. Back when it was a brigade, it was attached to a different political organization, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was formed by a group of leading Iraqi Shiʿa figures living in Iran who were opposed to Saddam Hussein. Back then it was known as the “Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq,” or in other words the Supreme Council for Repeating in Iraq What Happened in Iran in 1979. It was led

The group was founded in 1982, just as the the Iranians were going on the offensive in the Iraq-Iraq War, and the Badr Brigades actually fought alongside Iranian troops against the Baathist Iraqi army. Amiri was fighting in Badr back then, and he’s got pretty close ties to Tehran, especially IRGC/Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Badr is strongly believed to have carried out sectarian attacks against Sunnis during the post-Iraq War period, particularly via their work in the Interior Ministry, so you can maybe see why Iraqi Sunnis wouldn’t want the group’s leader to be given that particular cabinet post. Abadi is probably being pretty savvy in refusing to go along with this “plan.”

Abadi has done a few other things that have upset Maliki, like either eliminating or fundamentally restructuring the position of commander-in-chief, which was created by Maliki so that he could personally direct troop deployments and military activity like any would-be dictator worth his salt would want to do. Maliki also blamed Abadi for a recent Daesh attack on an army base at Saqlawiyah that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers. Maliki argued that the massacre was made possible by Abadi’s decision to suspend airstrikes on Daesh-held areas of the country, which Abadi did because Sunnis made it a condition of their agreeing to join a national fight against Daesh. Abadi apparently responded to Maliki’s criticism by pointing out that it was Maliki who got the country to this point in the first place, so maybe he should just kind of go away and stop talking now? But Maliki didn’t take that too well, for some reason.

Anyway, Maliki is believed to be organizing Shiʿa opposition to Abadi, and his efforts to govern the country more inclusively, behind the scenes, so that seems healthy.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, newly sworn-in President Ashraf Ghani has selected his vice-presidents, and hoo-boy. Continue reading

Getting taken seriously

D.R. Tucker, at Washington Monthly listens to Rich Lowry so you don’t have to (emphasis mine):

So that oracle of obnoxiousness, National Review editor Rich Lowry, showed up on California NPR affiliate KCRW-FM last Friday to discuss the week’s events with “Left, Right and Center” host Matt Miller. When the discussion turned to the September 21 People’s Climate March and the subsequent UN Climate Summit, Lowry couldn’t resist getting his sleaze on.

Miller acknowledged that Lowry was “skeptical” of climate science, which raised the obvious question of why he was brought on to begin with. Miller, of course, failed to acknowledge that National Review is heavily dependent on advertising from the fossil-fuel industry, a fairly obvious reason why he’s so “skeptical” of the science. (Miller also failed to acknowledge the publication’s sordid attacks on climate scientist Michael Mann.)

Robert Scheer, the other guest on the program, correctly accused Miller of “indulging the irrational right.” Seriously, is it that hard to find a non-progressive who accepts mainstream science but who disagrees with the Obama administration’s policy proposals on climate, rather than a far-right freak like Lowry?

The question, and it’s not just applicable to NPR or Rich Lowry, is at what point can we stop taking people seriously? Rich Lowry has no expertise in climate science. He’s peddling pure nonsense in the form of total climate denialism, and he’s doing it because climate change doesn’t fit his worldview (well, that and the advertising thing, probably). This is not an interesting contribution to the debate. When Rich Lowry talks about climate science, he does so in order to deceive his audience in order to further his desired political aims. Obviously he’s well within his rights to do that, but NPR (substitute CNN, Meet the Press, etc.) has no obligation to have him on to push his agenda in lieu of someone who has an honest point to make, does it? How much better would our elite journalism be if it stopped paying heed to frauds?

Also, too, along those same lines: Continue reading

Saturday Night Tunes: Giant Steps

Since I missed the chance to post something nice for John Coltrane’s birthday on Tuesday, let’s take the opportunity to look at maybe his greatest album, and certainly his most famous one, Giant Steps (recorded 1959, released 1960).

It’s fair to put Giant Steps up there alongside any album in jazz history in terms of quality, virtuosity, impact, just about any measure you want to use. It’s a true masterpiece that has influenced jazz artists ever since. The title number locks in everything that Coltrane had been experimenting with in his sessions with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and under his own name: the hyperspeed “sheets of sound” improvisational style that allowed him to deconstruct chords and put them back together in new ways, and his chord substitution method that became known as “Coltrane changes.” Coltrane would take a standard jazz chord progression (the “ii-V-I turnaround,” for anybody who knows a little jazz theory) and substitute several much quicker harmonically-related chord changes in place of the three chords used in the traditional progression. Don’t ask me to explain this because I really can’t, but the effect is astonishing. I’m not sure anybody who listens to this album will come away hearing exactly the same thing as anybody else.

Aside from the musical innovations, the album is also noteworthy for being one of a number of important albums recorded around this time that really put the emphasis of the music on the improvised solos rather than on the melody of the tune. Where traditionally the solos were meant to accent and highlight the tune, here the tune is just a vehicle to get you to the solos. That’s a trend that has definitely continued all the way to the present day.

Aside from Coltrane, Giant Steps features Tommy Flanagan on piano (Wynton Kelly on “Naima”), Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums (Jimmy Cobb on “Naima”). Most of the album was recorded only a couple of weeks after Coltrane had worked on Kind of Blue, which, man, talk about an abrupt change in style. “Naima” was recorded later than the rest of the album, when Kelly and Cobb (who along with Chambers were in Davis’s rhythm section at the time) were available, so Coltrane used them on that track. Here are some tunes:

The title track, one of the greatest and most important tunes in the history of jazz:

“Cousin Mary,” named for, shockingly, Coltrane’s cousin, Mary. He described her as an “earthy, folksy, swinging person,” which the tune captures pretty well:

“Countdown,” another frenetic test for Coltrane’s amazing technical proficiency:

Coltrane wrote “Syeeda’s Song Flute” for his daughter, written, in his words, to be “a happy, child’s song”:

“Naima,” a gorgeous ballad named for Coltrane’s wife, that showcases his ability to handle the slow stuff as well:

“Mr. PC,” an uptempo blues named in honor of bassist Chambers:

Missing here is “Spiral,” which you should also go check out.

What’s the deal with Khorasan, the most deadliest, frightening, evilest terror group that might not exist?

The Khorasan Group.

They’re the latest dire threat to the United States, so dire that we’ve either diverted resources from bombing Daesh positions in Syria to strike them or have used Daesh as an excuse to bomb inside Syria so that we could strike Khorasan targets. The name conjures up images of Abbasid shock troops forming in the region of Khorasan and marching west under black banners to overthrow the corrupt Umayyad caliphs, or of a prophetic Hadith attributed to Muhammad:

The Prophet Sallallahu ‘Alaihi Wa Sallam said: “Before your treasure, three will kill each other — all of them are sons of a different caliph but none will be the recipient. Then the Black Banners will appear from the East and they will kill you in a way that has never before been done by a nation.” Thawban, a companion said: ‘Then he said something that I do not remember by heart’ then continued to say that the Prophet, praise and peace be upon him, said: “If you see him give him your allegiance, even if you have to crawl over ice, because surely he is the Caliph of Allah, the Mahdi. If you see the black (meaning war) flags coming from Khurasan (Afghanistan), join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice, for this is the army of the Caliph, the Mahdi and no one can stop that army until it reaches Jerusalem.” 

Of course, that Hadith was only “compiled” after the Abbasids and their black flags had “appeared from Khorasan,” so chances are pretty good that some fan of the Abbasids either creatively rewrote what Muhammad really said or just invented the thing altogether.

The general public first started hearing about the Khorasan Group about a week ago, when The New York Times reported that intelligence and defense officials inside the U.S. government believed that it “posed a more direct threat to America and Europe” than Daesh (an AP report from a week earlier than that didn’t seem to really catch anybody’s attention like the NYT report did). Considering that Daesh poses really almost no “direct threat to America and Europe” right now, that’s not exactly a high bar to get over, but it still sounds scary.

Then, a couple of days after the Times report, The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. Army general who went much farther and much scarier:

Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later told reporters that the group was in the “final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland.” He added, “We believe the Khorasan Group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe” or the United States, having attempted to recruit Westerners who can more easily enter the target countries.

Whew, that sounds bad. Coincidentally, Mayville was speaking just after America had hit supposed Khorasan targets in the earliest rounds of airstrikes inside Syria. Those strikes, we’re told, may have “disrupted” Khorasan’s pending terror plots, and might even have killed the alleged group’s alleged leader, senior Al Qaeda figure Muhsin al-Fadhli. A tweet (in Arabic) proclaiming Fadhli’s “martyrdom” says that he was known as “Abu Asma al-Khurasani,” which could also help explain the group’s name, I guess? Assuming that actually is the group’s name (see below).

What’s going on here? Well, I have helpfully summarized what I think we can say we really know for sure about the Khorasan Group and the threat it poses into one handy chart:

¯\_(シ)_/¯ Continue reading

The trouble with definitions

The glaring problem with newly adopted UN Resolution 2178, dealing with the movement of “foreign terrorist fighters” around the world, is the same problem that’s plagued the “War on Terror” since its inception: we (the US, or the US and its allies if you like) can’t or won’t really define what constitutes “terrorism” or “terrorist acts.” Given that this is a UN resolution and therefore, “binding” or not, has about as much weight behind it as a cease and desist letter from Lionel Hutz,

…er, sorry, Miguel Sanchez, the only possible way it could have any impact on how states respond to foreign fighters moving from or through their territory is if it were so tightly written and well-defined as to leave no wiggle room for countries to argue against international repudiation. Unfortunately, 2178 is neither tightly written nor does it do a good job of defining the target.

Which is not to say it doesn’t take a stab at a definition. It tries to define a “foreign terrorist fighter” thusly:

Expressing grave concern over the acute and growing threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters, namely individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training, including in connection with armed conflict, and resolving to address this threat,

Well, OK, that defines a foreign fighter, but what separates a “foreign fighter” from a “foreign terrorist fighter”? Apparently a “foreign terrorist fighter” is a “foreign fighter who does terrorist stuff,” which I’m pretty sure is what the real braniacs call “begging the question.” You can’t define “terrorist” as “somebody who does terrorist things” without running into the teeny problem that you still haven’t defined what “terrorist things” are. Continue reading

It’s not like he’s got anything better to do

The Prime Minister of Thailand, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who moonlights as head of the army ever since a May coup left him in both jobs, is apparently planning to take on a third job: soap-opera writer.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has criticised television soap operas for promoting violence and divisions in society, and said he would write them himself if he had to.

Prayuth, who is also army chief, staged a coup on May 22, overthrowing an elected government after six months of at times violent anti-government protests.

“I have ordered that scripts be written, including plays on reconciliation, on tourism and on Thai culture”, he told reporters on Friday.

“They are writing plots at the moment and if they can’t finish it I will write it myself”, he said of a team of government-appointed writers.

The military government has ruled unchallenged since taking over and has cracked down on pro-democracy dissidents and supporters of the ousted government of Yingluck Shinawatra. It has even warned academics that debate that might “cause misunderstanding” would not be tolerated.

Oh my, yes, you wouldn’t want any misunderstandings. Clearly this is a government with its priorities in order.