It was one of those traditional, staid Washington events: an audience of three or four hundred Washington diplomats, policy people, think tank denizens and journalists gathered in the gilded ballroom at the Capital Hilton for an audience yesterday with French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, at an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We had all been offered ear pieces in case we needed translation, but Kouchner, the co-founder of French humanitarian medical relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres, addressed the audience in good if heavily accented English. His speech started with a nod to past tensions in Franco-US relations (remember Freedom Fries?) and was moving onto the Middle East, when a group of women seated towards the front of the huge ballroom started moving to the stage unfurling their pink anti-war banner, and one woman seemed to try to grab Kouchner. The secret service agent could be heard telling Kouchner, 'Sir, we have to take you out," as several other security officers grabbed the women as they began chanting, "No war with Iran, no war with Iran." The audience, the Secret Service, and CSIS president John Hamre, sitting at the raised podium, were all momentarily stunned.
But Kouchner recovered his composure first, and he asked at first it seemed merely perhaps politely, and later fully insisted to his host Hamre, that they let the activists back in. "But they are right. These ladies are right. I don't want war with Iran. Please let them back in." And to my surprise at least, after a couple minutes, the side doors of the large ballroom opened, and the women were escorted back to their seats by suited Secret Service types with the earpieces, not looking fully convinced of the wisdom of the move.
Kouchner directed his remarks at several points to the Code Pink activists during his almost one hour of remarks (video available from C-Span). He said he did not want war with Iran, that he considered it the worst option, and a failure. He told them that an Iran with a nuclear bomb was also a worst case option. He said he advocated "dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue" and sanctions. He engaged them and asked them, what is their solution then. One woman suggested, dialogue with no sanctions. Kouchner responded to her why he felt that was insufficient. A few of the activists, perhaps a bit surprised themselves at the turn of events, offered sheepish thanks from their third row seats to Kouchner for asking that they be allowed back in. Later, one of the women stood on her chair, held up a poster, and let up a lonely chant, "What kind of doctor" blah blah blah. She was removed. The security guard later came back for her bag.
Whatever one thinks of Kouchner and his foreign policy views, one was struck by how hard it is to even imagine any of the current U.S. administration handling such an outburst with anything approaching the willingness to engage shrill critics that Kouchner demonstrated at the scene. This administration and its critics have long operated in entirely different universes, top U.S. leaders have confined themselves to the most staged press and public events purged of critics to the extent possible.
Later, in remarks about Darfur, Kouchner said, "For two years, nobody did anything except the activists. The activists are always right."
In his press conference yesterday, President Bush let loose some whoppers in defending his plan to veto a popular, bipartisan bill that would extend health insurance to 4 million poor kids. Bush claimed that the bill would allow the program (known as SCHIP) to cover too many rich people, i.e., families earning up to $80,000 a year. Not only would this burden the taxpayers, but, he declared, it would lead all those families to (gasp!) drop private insurance in favor of the public program, making the bill "an incremental step toward the goal of government-run health care for every American."
Most of this just isn't true. A recent Urban Institute study found that the vast majority of the families covered under the pending bill have incomes less than $42,000 (for a family of four!). And even kids covered by SCHIP get their actual insurance from private companies that contract with the states, so no socialized medicine there.
That's why Bush's veto threat may be pretty irrelevant. Most of his own party is behind expanding the children's insurance program, including stalwart conservative Utah Republican senator Orrin Hatch, who provided perhaps the best quote of the debate so far. When asked by the Washington Post whether he would vote to override a Bush veto, he replied, "You bet your sweet bippy I will."
Could we be witnessing an unlikely resurgence of interest in Kate Bush? Two pieces of evidence: one, on a recent trip to local record emporium Amoeba, I bought a CD copy of The Dreaming (to replace a warped vinyl copy, in order to write this piece) and the clerk said "Hey, we're selling a lot of these lately." I said, "What? Kate Bush?!!" And he goes, "Yeah, a couple just today." I was completely baffled, until watching TV that night, when I happened upon exhibit number two: a Kate Bush song, "This Woman's Work," is being used to promote an upcoming episode of "CSI."
Accordingly, the song jumped into the iTunes Top 100. Weird! As the zeitgeist turns away from one Bush, is it turning for solace towards another? If so, I hope people don't forget The Dreaming, a shockingly strange album that may be the dark star around which the Kate Bush solar system rotates. Released 25 years ago this week, The Dreaming was Bush's fourth album in five years, but the first she produced herself, making it a sort of statement of intention, and that statement is "watch out."
The singer had burst onto the UK scene in 1978 (at age 19), hitting #1 with her comparatively accessible single "Wuthering Heights." While she didn't entirely escape the cynical marketing techniques of the music industry (her label notoriously used a publicity photo that emphasized her, uh, voluptuous bosoms) Bush forged a path on The Dreaming that's hard to imagine any of today's young female singers taking. While the album features a variety of guest musicians, it revolves around Bush's use of the Fairlight synthesizer, whose sound has aged surprisingly well; its imitation trumpets and violins have unique depth and timbre, and Bush wrangles the instrument like a pro. Her production work is all the more astonishing considering the pre-Pro Tools era: track five, "Leave It Open," features at least three unique vocal effects, including a thick flange, a thin, sped-up reverb, and a flashy reverse-echo that zooms in from the right to the left channel. Try it on headphones, it's hella weird. And yes, that voice, one of the more impressive in pop music, or anywhere. While her mannerisms are easily mockable, they're never show-offy; on the contrary, in almost every song, she's willing to push her vocal chords to extreme lows, gravelly shouts, piercing hollers, all in service of the song. Like her beloved Fairlight, her voice is a malleable instrument, a tool for making sounds; this is a singer who makes Bjork look like Ashlee Simpson.
Opening track, "Sat In Your Lap," alternates between 3/4 and 2/4 time; the title track trips along in 6/8; didgeridoos, bongos and even a bouzouki make appearances; this is one kooky listen, for sure. So it's surprising how simple and, in fact, childlike the central element of the album turns out to be: a piano, played in basic, loping chords, like a waltz or a march. It's with this familiar, comforting motif that Bush balances the album's eccentricities, like a children's story that uses the conventions of genre to introduce the surreal and fantastic. Appropriately, Bush's awe-inspiring collection of singles, The Whole Story, was one of my favorite albums as an insufferable 15-year-old; it's hard to separate how much of my feeling for her music now is nostalgia for my early adoration, or unbiased present appreciation. I think it can be both. For an artist whose career contains multiple masterpieces, The Dreaming is where she took control, an exhilarating moment where she aimed her career straight into uncharted territory.
It takes money to fight fires, and the bigger the fire, the more expensive it is. With all the news of wildfires in the west, it's interesting to learn that it costs the Forest Service a billion dollars a year to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). High Country News has an interesting post today about a report on the cost of fighting fires in the WUI.
Some interesting tidbits from the report:
* Only 14% of forested western private land adjacent to public land is currently developed for residential use. Based on current growth trends, there is tremendous potential for future development on the remaining 86%.
* Given the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires in recent years (on average $1.3 billion each year between 2000-2005), this potential development would create an unmanageable financial burden for taxpayers.
* If homes were built in 50% of the forested areas where private land borders public land, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion per year. By way of comparison, the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget is approximately $4.5 billion.
* One in five homes in the wildland urban interface is a second home or cabin, compared to one in twenty-five homes on other western private lands.
* Residential lots built near wildlands take up more than six times the space of homes built in other places. On average, 3.2 acres per person are consumed for housing in the wildland urban interface, compared to 0.5 acres on other western private lands.
Protecting the WUI from future development, it seems, would be a step in the right direction. But till that happens, there are some pretty interesting ethical questions to wrestle with. Here's one: Do second-home owners have as much of a right as first-home owners to build in the WUI, if firefighters must risk their lives—and spend taxpayer money—to save vacation cabins?
Presidential candidates are famous for promising wars against various social ills—the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, etc.—but Bill Richardson may be the first to launch the "War on Fat." Richardson, who has shed 30 pounds over the past year, bragged yesterday that he was the only person running for president to address The Obesity Society.
In an open appeal to the 66 percent of Americans who now tip the scales as officially overweight, Richardson called for covering the obese under the Americans With Disabilities Act and for federal funding for college PE classes. Future campaign posters to read: "Richardson Fights Freshman 15!"
Hey, those guys are stealing my idea for a mash-up album! Oh wait, if you made the original I guess it's not stealing. Billboardreports the no longer boyish (if basically beastly) Beastie Boys are planning to release a remixed version of their instrumental album, The Mix-Up; artists tapped for inclusion on the new mix include rapper M.I.A., former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, and visa-denial poster child Lily Allen. In other words, as Adam "MCA" Yauch said, "a bunch of British people."
No word on whether the vocalists will be contributing existing a capellas or writing new material for the album, either would be interesting I guess, although it'd be hard to make The Mix-Up more boring. Perhaps the band were inspired by The Beastles, the multiple-album project from Boston's DJ BC?
From a recent Mary Matalin letter written on behalf of Scooter Libby: "Scooter should never have even been put on trial. His conviction was an absolute and total miscarriage of justice." Uh huh, and? "Scooter still has hundreds of thousands of dollars in outstanding legal bills from his trial." Ohhh. "These bills need to be paid immediately." Yikes. Sorry, somehow I think giving to the Red Cross might be a bit more worthwhile. But try me again next year, when this thing is still on appeal.
You'd think this guy would be better at raising Scooter some dough.
Pitchfork, like it or not, is at the center of the indie-rock whirlwind. The music site has been credited with launching the careers of Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and more; a good review can create a fan base (hello, Girl Talk) or push you off the map (too many to count). And yes, we're aware that music criticism is a traditionally male enterprise (just as indie rock is), but Gawker points out today that the male-to-female ratio over at the Fork may be even higher than you'd suspect. In an accounting of the genders and names of reviewers on 10 days of four random months, they found that reviews by guys named Mark always outnumbered reviews by women of any name, usually by at least 2-to-1. For instance, in March of 2007, out of 50 sampled reviews, there were two by women, and ten by dudes named Mark. Well, what can I say: dudes named Mark like bands named Animal Collective.
People love to hate on Pitchfork, but you have to know how to read it: ignore their snarky, sub-3.0 reviews, meant to make a point of some sort; don't feel bad if one of your favorite CDs gets a 5.3; but always, always search out and listen to things they like. Overwhelmingly male (and Mark-y) or not, it's hard not to celebrate a home for such in-depth music criticism of usually-overlooked artists. I just wish they weren't becoming the judgemental high school clique that I'm sure oppressed all of them in actual high school.
Let's see what we were missing by being too cheap to pay for (the now extinct) TimesSelect...
Oh, here's a David Brooks column revealing that the Secretary of Defense rejects several of the main tenets of George W. Bush's foreign policy. Nice. From a recent Robert Gates speech:
Throughout the messy years that followed, Gates explained, we have made deals with tyrants to defeat other tyrants. We've championed human rights while doing business with some of the worst violators of human rights....
Two themes ran through his speech. First, the tragic ironies of history the need to compromise with evil in order to do good. And second, patience the need to wait as democratic reforms slowly develop.
Using this logic, Gates would likely argue that we should be actively engaging Iran and Syria, regime's we don't approve of, in order to bring order to Iraq. And he would argue that, since "democratic reforms slowly develop," invading countries unaccustomed to democracy and foisting it upon their people isn't too bright. What else?
"I don't think you invade Iraq to bring liberty. You do it to eliminate an unstable regime and because sanctions are breaking down and you get liberty as a byproduct," he continued. I asked him whether invading Iraq was a good idea, knowing what we know now. He looked at me for a bit and said, "I don't know."
Well, that's just about the most honest thing a high-level Bush Administration official has ever said in public. You might claim that Bush's best decision in the Iraq War was appointing this guy to be SecDef. You might also claim that Bush's worst decision was waiting so freaking long.
And wait, Gates isn't done.
I asked him if it was a good idea to encourage elections in the Palestinian territories. He didn't directly address the question, but he noted: "Too often elections are equated with democracy and freedom."
I asked about how we can promote freedom in Iran while taking care of security threats. He emphasized soft power.