“A twilight world of magick without a New Age sugar-coating, and darkness without Goth cliches”: John Coulthart on a particular variety of recent British electronic music (Arthur, 2007)

An Invitation to the Electric Seance

by John Coulthart

Posted Dec 14, 2007 on the Arthur blog at Yahoo


At precisely 20:02 on the 20th February, 2002 (20/02, 2002 in the UK date system), nine people gathered at the banks of the River Thames where it passes the Greenwich Observatory at 00 longitude, the world’s Prime Meridian. They were there to perform “a mass for palindromic time,” “to celebrate and to devastate, to perform an act of chronological terrorism, strike a blow to the heart of the Great Wyrm time” as one of the participants, Mark Pilkington, described it. If use of the word “terrorism” seems ill-advised it should perhaps be remembered that the Greenwich Observatory was the site of a genuine bomb attack by a French anarchist in 1894, an event which inspired Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent.

The 2002 ritual is one of the more striking manifestations of a largely unobserved current of inspiration running through the margins of British electronic music in recent years. A loose network of musicians have been following similar paths of interest or obsession, paths that frequently end up in places where ritual, magick and paranormal occurrence are the spur for musical invention. Themes and reference points include weird tales and ghost story writers (especially some of the names that influenced HP Lovecraft), psychogeography (or the physical examination of the psychic qualities of our cities), renegade science, and nostalgia for half-remembered (or mis-remembered) films and television, typically science fiction and horror. These groups are eager to use their work to lift the veil on the mundane and shine a light into occluded zones. What they’re delving into might be called “occulture” (for want of a better term), “occult” meaning hidden, and it’s with hidden, forgotten or secret arts that occulture concerns itself.

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OUT, DEMONS, OUT!: The 1967 Exorcism of the Pentagon and the Birth of Yippie! (Arthur, 2004)


This piece was originally published in Arthur No. 13 (Nov. 2004), with cover artwork by John Coulthart and design by William T. Nelson, pictured above (click image to view at larger size). A correction involving Cosmic Charlie published in a later issue has been embedded in the text here at the most natural point. I’m sorry that I’ve been unable to include the many fantastic photographs from the print article here. However, I have added a still from the film “Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up” by Dick Fontaine, which we did not have access to at the time of print publication into the text, and there are more stills from various films appended. —Jay Babcock

Clip from Arthur No. 13’s Table of Contents page, featuring photo by Robert A. Altman.


OUT, DEMONS, OUT!

On October 21, 1967, the Pentagon came under a most unconventional assault.

An oral history by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Michael Simmons and Jay Babcock

* * *

INTRODUCTION BY MICHAEL SIMMONS
By Autumn of 1967, the “police action” in Vietnam had escalated. The United States of America waged War—that hideous manifestation of the human race’s worst instincts—against the small, distant, sovereign land. 485,600 American troops were then stationed in Nam; 9,353 would die in ’67 alone. We were there under false pretenses (the “attack’ at the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened), operating under a paranoid doctrine (the Domino Theory, fretting that Vietnamese Communists fighting a civil war in their own country with popular support would envelop all of Southeast Asia and end up invading Dubuque, Iowa). Seven million tons of bombs would eventually be dropped, as opposed to two million during World War II. Indiscriminate use of gruesome weaponry was deployed, most infamously napalm, a jelly that sticks to—and burns through—human skin. Saturation bombings, free-fire zones, massive defoliation with the carcinogen Agent Orange. “Destroying the village to save it,” as one American military man put it.

For a generation that remembered the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals after WW II, something had to be done. Genocidal fugitive Adolf Eichmann’s “I was just following orders” excuse would not fly. The draft was sending 18-year-olds off to die. A domestic anti-war movement emerged, as had a counterculture of hairy young people who rejected the militarism, greed, sexual repression, and stunted consciousness of their parents and leaders to pursue Joy and Sharing as well as Dope, Rock and Roll, and Fucking in the Streets. Pundits spoke of The Generation Gap. A quaking chasm had split the nation.

San Francisco painter Michael Bowen had a dream of people coming together to celebrate his city’s burgeoning hippie subculture, and so he and his wife Martine initiated the Great Human Be-In on Sunday, January 14, 1967. Sub-billed as A Gathering of the Tribes, 10,000 hippies, radicals and free spirits convened in Golden Gate Park. Beat poets emceed (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lenore Kandel), rock bands rocked (Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans), Hell’s Angels returned lost kids to their mommies – and the cops busted no one, despite rampant open marijuana use. For many, the realization that there were other Martians was transcendental. Berkeley anti-war activist Jerry Rubin gave a speech, but his narrow political rap was dubbed “too histrionic” by Ginsberg and many in the crowd. It fortuitously forked Rubin’s direction. “It was the first time I did see a new society,” he said later. “I saw there was no need for a political statement. I didn’t understand that until then, either.”

Events ending with the suffix “In” became the rage. Bob Fass hosted the hippest radio show in the country, “Radio Unnameable” on New York’s WBAI. The all-night gab-and-music fest was Freak Centra, functioning as a pre-internet audio website. Regular guests included Realist editor Paul Krassner (dubbed “Father of the Underground Press”), underground film director Robert Downey Sr. (father and namesake of…), actor/writer Marshall Efron (arguably the funniest man on the planet), and a manic activist-gone-psychedelic named Abbie Hoffman—all rapping madly, verbally riffing and improvising like musicians. One night after participating in a UsCo avant-garde multi-media show of projections, movies, music, etc., at an airplane hangar, Fass stopped by nearby JFK International Airport and noticed a group of three dozen young people—clearly ripped to the tits—communally entranced by a giant mobile centerpiecing a terminal. The vast open spaces of an airport, with jet planes and stars in the sky, were the stage for dreams to come to life. Fass flashed on the infinite possibilities.

He conceived a Fly-In at JFK and announced it on Radio Unnameable. Though Saturday night, February 11, was freezing cold, 3,000 of the underground’s finest came to sing Beatles songs, torch reefers, dance the body electric, and groove with their sisters and brothers. “One of the things that happened,” Fass observed, “was that there was such a colossal amount of human connection that there was something akin to feedback that happened, and people really began to experience not ‘happiness,’ but Ecstasy and Joy. We’re planning another one at your house.”

New York responded to San Francisco’s Be-In with its own. Key to its success was Jim Fouratt, a young actor who’d become one of the most effective hippie organizers on the Lower East Side. Promotion for the event cost $250, which paid for posters and leaflets. On Easter Sunday, March 27, 10,000 full and part-time hippies came together—some in the carnal definition—at Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. It was a glistening, no bad vibes, lysergic day. Fouratt was central to virtually every NYC hip community event, including the infamous Soot-In at Consolidated Edison, where he, Abbie Hoffman, and others dumped bags of nasty black soot at the coal burning, energy company’s offices, in a protest that prefigured and influenced the birth of the environmental movement.

Emmett Grogan was a brilliant and enigmatic prankster/con man at the heart of San Francisco’s do-goodnik anarcho-rogues the Diggers. He suggested to his friend Bob Fass that a Sweep-In would strengthen the momentum the Fly-In had sparked. The idea was to “clean up the Lower East Side” area of NYC where the hippies dwelled. Fass conspired with Krassner and Abbie and listeners on his radio show, and they chose Seventh Street, where Krassner lived. The buzz grew louder and one day an inquiring bureaucrat from the Sanitation Department called Radio Unnameable. The potentates of garbage at City Hall were nervous about these beatniks with brooms taking their gig. While appearing cooperative on the phone and in a later meeting, the city pranked the pranksters on the day of the Sweep-In, April 8. When thousands of mop-wielding longhairs appeared at 11 a.m., they beheld a garbage-free, sparkling fresh, squeaky clean street of slums—courtesy of the Sanitation Department. Fass and Krassner were amused that they’d actually forced the city to do its job. Unfazed, they moved the Sweep-In to Third Street. When a city garbage truck turned the corner, the street peeps leaped on it and cleaned it as well.

No single human—other than Tribal Elder Allen Ginsberg—was as influential on this emerging culture than Ed Sanders. He led the satirical-protest-smut-folk-rock band The Fugs with East Village legend Tuli Kupferberg, ran the Peace Eye Bookstore (and community center) on 10th Street, published Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, made films like Mongolian Clusterfuck, wrote poetry, rabble roused for myriad peacenik causes and cannabis legalization. Sanders—one of the first public figures to live seamlessly within realms of Politics, Art, and Fun—was a first cousin to Che Guevara’s paradigmatic New Man—albeit thoroughly American and anti-authoritarian.

But the Life Actor who embodies the Revolutionary Prankster in 20th-century history books is Abbie Hoffman. And he is where our story begins…

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THE JUDAS OF THE WESTERN HIGHLANDS: James Marriott on Maximon (Arthur, 2004)

Encounter With Maximon
While investigating Guatemala’s folk-magic patron saint of thieves and whores, James Marriott made a serious mistake. Illustration by John Coulthart.

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan 2004)

The first children I asked to show me the way to the house of Maximon, Guatemala’s ‘evil saint’, turned tail and fled. The next boy I approached was unable to escape, hobbled by a pair of oversized rubber boots, and pointed me in the right direction. The building wasn’t much to look out—unpainted concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof—but once I was in I knew I’d come to the right place.

Maximon sat at one end of a dark room, the life-sized dummy of a moustachioed white man wearing a suit, sunglasses, a felt hat and a silk scarf, with a garish handkerchief over his mouth. Candles were arrayed before him, and towards the entrance, at the opposite end of the room, tarot and palm readings were taking place. Another doorway led through to a courtyard, beyond which was a shop selling cigars, magical potions, herbs, candles and anything else the devotee might need.

There was a fire in the courtyard, around which a Mayan woman with gold teeth, a ladino woman and two boys of around six hyperventilated on huge cigars, working themselves into a sweat. The Mayan woman offered to read my palm. When I foolishly declined, she shrieked with laughter and returned to the serious business of her cigar. The ladino woman didn’t even look at me—Maximon is the patron saint of thieves and prostitutes, but I couldn’t very well ask her if either of these applied—and when the nicotine-crazed boys started to run around my legs, I went back into the main room to take a seat at the back and make myself as inconspicuous as possible.

New arrivals would walk straight past the tarot readers and into the courtyard, where they consulted with the Mayan woman before puffing on cigars and preparing themselves for a consultation with the saint. They would then approach the impassive figure and speak to him, stroking his arms and laying money and other offerings in a bowl in his lap. A smartly dressed man standing by the saint appeared to be his keeper, putting offerings of cigars in his mouth and tipping aguardiente, a fiery local spirit, down his wooden throat, or gently lashing the devotees with a bundle of herbs during a limpia, or soul cleansing.

The children came in, one looking demonic as he threatened the other with a bottle, then tied his feet together with a length of twine. The keening victim tried to hide behind me, crawling into a safe position sheltered by the gringo as the increasingly demented bully giggled and made throat-slitting gestures, the pain and anguish in his victim’s face only spurring him on to greater fury. For a terrible moment I thought that I was mistaken—they weren’t children at all, but rather stunted adults, their growth arrested by heavy nicotine use—but the pitch of the victim’s whine reassured me. As the bullying grew nastier in tone, I wondered if I should intervene, but it seemed patronizing to do anything— the only attention the other adults paid was to motion to the weaker child to be quiet. Eventually the bully left the room, and his charge fled. It seemed a fitting introduction to the world of the Judas of the Western Highlands.

* * *

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Michael Brownstein on MEDITATION AS A SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITY (Arthur No. 15/Feb 2005)

Artwork by John Coulthart, from Arthur No. 15/Feb 2005


KILLING THE MADMAN
What does meditation have to do with activism?
Plenty, says poet Michael Brownstein

I’ve been a Buddhist for many years, and I am also an activist, committed to overturning the profit-driven monoculture which is destroying our health, our Earth, and our soul. How are these two forms of awareness—awareness of what’s taking place in the outside world, and awareness of our internal processes—related? Can each aid the other in creating a sane, sustainable and just world?

Let’s look at activism in terms of the negative emotions generated—indignation and rage, but also frustration, sorrow, resignation. These are negative emotions because of the effect they have on us, the people who experience them. Not on the object of our emotions, whether it be the World Trade Organization, Monsanto, or George Bush. Negative emotions are reactive. Their only impact is on us. What difference does it make to Monsanto that you’re seething with indignation at something it has done or said? What difference does it make to the Pacific Lumber Company when you come upon a clear-cut old-growth forest in California and feel devastated?

Staying present with our emotions—anger, for example—means remaining aware of what we’re experiencing without becoming lost in reactivity. It means liberating the energy generated by anger from the object that calls it forth. In other words, it is a form of meditation. Then, the possibility exists to work with the situation from a place of clarity, rather than be submerged in confusion.

So, the first revolutionary act—or fact—about meditation is that it puts you in touch with what you’re feeling and thinking at this very moment. It puts you in touch with presence. Then you realize that you are the source of your emotions—not Monsanto or McDonald’s. This does not imply that we shouldn’t have these responses, but that we have to use them rather than be used by them. And the only way to do that is to become aware of their nature. Continue reading

A TESTIMONIAL RIFF: Tony Rettman on SUNBURNED HAND OF THE MAN, SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE, COMETS ON FIRE (Arthur, 2003)

Above: the cover to Arthur No. 7 (Nov 2003)—artwork by John Coulthart, design by W.T. Nelson


Dark Funk, Gardenfolk and the Almighty Zaps
This summer, underground psych bands SUNBURNED HAND OF THE MAN, COMETS ON FIRE and SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE ventured across the continent in a traveling caravan of mindblowers. Tony Rettman reports live from the scene.

Originally published in Arthur No. 7 (November 2003)

“Jazz doesn’t have to swing and rock doesn’t have to rock and religion has next to nothing to do with God.” —Richard Meltzer

Yes. Meltzer’s testimonial riff is the kind that can really get you going going gone. Strip music of any elements that seem banal, pretentious or overly cerebral. Twist the sound into something of your own. Create a primal celebration of boundary-less independence. Join the others who’ve walked through the door marked “Free”—and emerge with a blown mind full of free jazz, psychedelia, proto-metal, oddball folk, prog rock, blues, English country rock, funk, mind-numbing drones, electronic music, non-genre improvisation.

In the past few years, a seemingly ever-growing number of underground American artists have been making that trek Beyond, collecting elements from these sounds and shooting them through a post-punk perspective, laying the results down on self-pressed vinyl and home-burned CD-Rs, sold through homegrown distribution networks like Brooklyn’s Fusetron, Arizona’s Eclipse Records, and Massachusetts’ Forced Exposure and Ecstatic Yod.

But a funny thing is happening. Through next to no effort of their own, these freaks are now attracting the attention of curious folk from outside the esoteric, near-hermetic circles that their music was necessarily born from and sustained by. Indeed, the very definition of this genre-obscuring cult movin’ on up happened this July when three of the finest units out of this quote scene unquote descended on Pianos in NYC to strut their stuff: San Francisco’s’ loud-as-hell psychedelic four-piece Comets On Fire, Boston’s 15-member sound collective The Sunburned Hand of the Man and the author of the new chapter of gypsy folk meanings from Santa Cruz, Six Organs of Admittance. This show—the conclusion of a three-week tour—brought together three groups who are aesthetically linked in approach, intensity and a loosely limbed philosophy: Here’s how the whole enchilada—the show, the tour, the bands themselves—came together and got down to getting Free.

* * *

Ben Chasny is Six Organs of Admittance–he is the sole soul responsible for the unearthly and solemn sounds created under this moniker, with others occasionally sitting in on recordings and live sets. Tonight at Pianos in he first and he plays alone, acoustic guitar in his lap, head down and hair in face, with only his black jackbooted heel to keep the beat. “Transcendent” is the bang-on word to describe what Chasny lays out. His music conjures up foggy, half-remembered memories of drunken nights in overlit fluorescent rooms that pulse. Strange feelings that mix danger with joy. And then he busts out with a cover of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.”

Visiting with Chasny later in the evening over a beer at the bar, I get some background. Chasny grew up in the woods bordering the northern California town of Eureka, 300 miles north of San Francisco. His musical upbringing was positive hardcore punk, until one day when his hippie father laid dark folk troubadour Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree box set on him. In it laid all the keys needed to open Chasny’s doors wide open. A second turning point came when a friend returned from a journey to San Francisco with a copy of the underground psych magazine Forced Exposure in hand. “That magazine was filled with exactly what I knew was out there but couldn’t find,” says Chasny. “I went crazy and started absorbing all the new sounds they were championing.”

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Terrorist Triage

Why are the presidential candidates—and so many counterterrorism experts—afraid to say that the Al Qaeda threat is overrated?

Christopher Dickey
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Updated: 9:32 AM ET May 6, 2008

Michael Sheehan is on a one-man mission to put terrorist threats into perspective, which is a place they’ve rarely or ever been before. Already you can see it’s going to be a hard slog. Fighting the inflated menace of Osama bin Laden has become big business, generating hundreds of billions of dollars for government agencies and contractors in what one friend of mine in the Washington policy-making stratosphere calls “the counterterrorist-industrial complex.”

But Sheehan’s got the kind of credentials that ought to make us stop and listen. He was a U.S. Army Green Beret fighting guerrillas in Central America in the 1980s, he served on the National Security Council staff under both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, and he held the post of ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism from 1998 to 2000.

In those days Sheehan was among that persistent, relentless and finally shrill chorus of voices trying to warn the Clinton administration that Osama bin Laden and his boys represented a horrific danger to the United States and its interests. Days after the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors, experienced analysts like Sheehan at the State Department and Richard A. Clarke at the White House were certain Al Qaeda was behind it, but there was no support for retaliation among the Clintonistas or, even less, the Pentagon.

Clarke later wrote vividly about Sheehan’s reaction after the military brass begged off. “Who the s— do they think attacked the Cole, f—in’ Martians?” Sheehan asked Clarke. “Does Al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?”

We all know the answer to that question, of course. But what’s interesting is not that Sheehan was so right, for all the good it did, or that President Bill Clinton and then President George W. Bush were so wrong not to pay attention. What’s interesting is Sheehan’s argument now that Al Qaeda just isn’t the existential-twilight-struggle threat it’s often cracked up to be. Hence the subtitle of his new book, “Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves” (Crown, 2008).

The ideas Sheehan puts forth in a text as easy to read as a Power Point should be central to every security debate in the current presidential campaign. But given the personality politics that have dominated the race so far, that seems unlikely. Once again it’s up to the public to figure these things out for itself.

“I want people to understand what the real threat is and what’s a bunch of bull,” Sheehan told me when I tracked him down a few days ago in one of those Middle Eastern hotel lobbies where you sip orange juice and lemonade at cocktail time. (He asked me not to say where, precisely, since the government he’s now advising on policing and terrorism puts a high premium on discretion.)

Before September 11, said Sheehan, the United States was “asleep at the switch” while Al Qaeda was barreling down the track. “If you don’t pay attention to these guys,” said Sheehan, “they will kill you in big numbers.” So bin Laden’s minions hit U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, they hit the Cole in 2000, and they hit New York and Washington in 2001—three major attacks on American targets in the space of 37 months. Since then, not one. And not for want of trying on their part.

What changed? The difference is purely and simply that intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the military have focused their attention on the threat, crushed the operational cells they could find—which were in fact the key ones plotting and executing major attacks—and put enormous pressure on all the rest.

“I reject the notion that Al Qaeda is waiting for ‘the big one’ or holding back an attack,” Sheehan writes. “A terrorist cell capable of attacking doesn’t sit and wait for some more opportune moment. It’s not their style, nor is it in the best interest of their operational security. Delaying an attack gives law enforcement more time to detect a plot or penetrate the organization.”

Terrorism is not about standing armies, mass movements, riots in the streets or even palace coups. It’s about tiny groups that want to make a big bang. So you keep tracking cells and potential cells, and when you find them you destroy them. After Spanish police cornered leading members of the group that attacked trains in Madrid in 2004, they blew themselves up. The threat in Spain declined dramatically.

Indonesia is another case Sheehan and I talked about. Several high-profile associates of bin Laden were nailed there in the two years after 9/11, then sent off to secret CIA prisons for interrogation. The suspects are now at Guantánamo. But suicide bombings continued until police using forensic evidence—pieces of car bombs and pieces of the suicide bombers—tracked down Dr. Azahari bin Husin, “the Demolition Man,” and the little group around him. In a November 2005 shootout the cops killed Dr. Azahari and crushed his cell. After that such attacks in Indonesia stopped.

The drive to obliterate the remaining hives of Al Qaeda training activity along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier and those that developed in some corners of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 needs to continue, says Sheehan. It’s especially important to keep wanna-be jihadists in the West from joining with more experienced fighters who can give them hands-on weapons and explosives training. When left to their own devices, as it were, most homegrown terrorists can’t cut it. For example, on July 7, 2005, four bombers blew themselves up on public transport in London, killing 56 people. Two of those bombers had trained in Pakistan. Another cell tried to do the same thing two weeks later, but its members had less foreign training, or none. All the bombs were duds.

Sheehan’s perspective is clearly influenced by the three years he spent, from 2003 to 2006, as deputy commissioner for counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department. There, working with Commissioner Ray Kelly and David Cohen, the former CIA operations chief who heads the NYPD’s intelligence division, Sheehan helped build what’s regarded as one of the most effective terrorist-fighting organizations in the United States. Radicals and crazies of many different stripes have targeted the city repeatedly over the last century, from alleged Reds to Black Blocs, from Puerto Rican nationalists and a “mad bomber” to Al Qaeda’s aspiring martyrs. But the police have limited resources, so they’ve learned the art of terrorist triage, focusing on what’s real and wasting little time and money on what’s merely imagined.

“Even in 2003, less than two years after 9/11, I told Kelly and Cohen that I thought Al Qaeda was simply not very good,” Sheehan writes in his book. Bin Laden’s acolytes “were a small and determined group of killers, but under the withering heat of the post-9/11 environment, they were simply not getting it done … I said what nobody else was saying: we underestimated Al Qaeda’s capabilities before 9/11 and overestimated them after. This seemed to catch both Kelly and Cohen a bit by surprise, and I agreed not to discuss my feelings in public. The likelihood for misinterpretation was much too high.”

It still is. At the Global Leadership Forum co-sponsored by NEWSWEEK at the Royal United Services Institute in London last week, the experts and dignitaries didn’t want to risk dissing Al Qaeda, even when their learned presentations came to much the same conclusions as Sheehan.

The British Tories’ shadow security minister, Pauline Neville-Jones, dismissed overblown American rhetoric: “We don’t use the language of the Global War on Terror,” said the baroness. “We actively eschew it.” The American security expert Ashton Carter agreed. “It’s not a war,” said the former assistant secretary of defense, who is now an important Hillary Clinton supporter. “It’s a matter of law enforcement and intelligence, of Homeland Security hardening the target.” The military focus, he suggested, should be on special ops.

Sir David Omand, who used to head Britain’s version of the National Security Agency and oversaw its entire intelligence establishment from the Cabinet Office earlier this decade, described terrorism as “one corner” of the global security threat posed by weapons proliferation and political instability. That in turn is only one of three major dangers facing the world over the next few years. The others are the deteriorating environment and a meltdown of the global economy. Putting terrorism in perspective, said Sir David, “leads naturally to a risk management approach, which is very different from what we’ve heard from Washington these last few years, which is to ‘eliminate the threat’.”

Yet when I asked the panelists at the forum if Al Qaeda has been overrated, suggesting as Sheehan does that most of its recruits are bunglers, all shook their heads. Nobody wants to say such a thing on the record, in case there’s another attack tomorrow and their remarks get quoted back to them.

That’s part of what makes Sheehan so refreshing. He knows there’s a big risk that he’ll be misinterpreted; he’ll be called soft on terror by ass-covering bureaucrats, breathless reporters and fear-peddling politicians. And yet he charges ahead. He expects another attack sometime, somewhere. He hopes it won’t be made to seem more apocalyptic than it is. “Don’t overhype it, because that’s what Al Qaeda wants you to do. Terrorism is about psychology.” In the meantime, said Sheehan, finishing his fruit juice, “the relentless 24/7 job for people like me is to find and crush those guys.”

As I headed into the parking lot, watching a storm blow in off the desert, it occurred to me that one day in the not too distant future the inability of these terrorist groups to act effectively will discredit them and the movement they claim to represent. If they did succeed with a new attack and the public and media brushed it off after a couple of news cycles, that would discredit them still more. The psychological victory would be ours for a change, and not only in our own societies but very likely in theirs. Or, to paraphrase an old Army dictum, if you crush the cells, the hearts and minds will follow.

In a similar vein (and way back in 2004): The Power of Nightmares.

Paging Godsmack

Army Seeks “Professional Celebrity Rock Music Band”

By Noah Shachtman

It’s not completely surprising that the Army wants to hire a band to tour its bases in Afghanistan and Kuwait. The armed services get all kinds of folks, to entertain the troops. “But it’s the way that they solicit for rock bands that makes the whole thing hilarious,” Stephen Trimble notes.

First, a summary of what the Army is seeking:

Professional Celebrity Rock Music Band, group not to exceed seven people for tour of FOB’s [forward operating bases] in Kuwait and Afghanistan for February 4-13 2008. The band should be an active rock band, with a music genre consisting of Southern Rock, Pop Rock, Post-Grunge and Hard Rock. At least one member of the band should be recognizable as a professional celebrity. Protective military equipment, such as kevlar, body armour, eye and ear protection will be provided when the group is travelling on military rotary or fixed wing aircraft.

Then, there’s the highly-calibrated method the service will use to evaluate these Professional Celebrity Rock Music Band applicants. The contract will be awarded based on “Past Performance, Contractor Capability, Contractor’s Experience, Celebrity Status of the Proposed Artists, and Price. Contractor Capability, Experience, and Price. The celebrity status of the proposed artist is slightly more important than these 3 combined, and all 4 combined are slightly more important than Price.”

More at Wired.

Articles of faith

When two eminent US scholars wrote about the ‘Israel lobby’ they were vilified by colleagues and the Washington Post. This week Barack Obama joined the attack. Ed Pilkington hears their story

Ed Pilkington
Saturday September 15, 2007
The Guardian

Given the reception John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received for their London Review of Books essay last year on what they called the Israel Lobby, it would have been understandable had they crawled away to a dark corner of their respective academic institutions to lick their wounds. Their argument that US foreign policy has been distorted by the stultifying power of pro-Israeli groups and individuals was met with a firestorm of protest that has smouldered ever since.

The authors were assailed with headlines such as the Washington Post’s: “Yes, it’s anti-semitic.” The neocon pundit William Kristol accused them in the Wall Street Journal of “anti-Judaism” while the New York Sun linked them with the white supremacist David Duke.

The row became a focal point of a much wider debate about the limits of permitted criticism of the state of Israel and its American-based supporters that has ensnared several academics and writers, including a former president. Jimmy Carter was castigated earlier this year when he published a plea for a renewed engagement in the Middle-East peace process under the admittedly provocative title, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He was labelled an anti-semitic “Jew hater” and even a Nazi sympathiser. Meanwhile, a British-born historian at New York University, Tony Judt, has been warned off or disinvited from four academic events in the past year. On one occasion, he was asked to promise not to mention Israel in a speech on the Holocaust. He refused.

For Walt, the explosion of criticism after the LRB publication in March 2006 struck particularly close to home as two members of his own Harvard faculty turned on him. Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature, compared Walt and his University of Chicago co-author’s work to that of a notorious 19th-century German anti-semite. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard criminal law professor who represented OJ Simpson, charged them with culling some of their references from neo-Nazi websites.

Given the battering he has taken, Walt is remarkably upbeat. “We were surprised by how nasty it got,” says the Harvard professor. “The David Duke reference, the neo-Nazi websites – these were intended to smear us and swing attention on to us rather than to what we were saying. It wasn’t pleasant, but it never made me doubt what we had written or doubt myself.” Standing tall in the face of attack is one thing; to raise your head above the parapet for a second round is quite another. But that is what the Mearsheimer/Walt double act are doing: they have gone on the offensive with the publication of a book-length version of their original treatise.

As night follows day, the dispute has started anew. The New York Sun has dedicated a section of its website to the controversy; Dershowitz has revved up again, calling the book “a bigoted attack on the American Jewish community”; and Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, has gone to the trouble of writing his own book in riposte – and it’s in the bookshops a week before The Israel Lobby appears.

There is one obvious question to put to Walt: why do it to yourself? Wasn’t one stoning enough? “We did ask ourselves, did we want to go through this again?” he admits, but only to add: “It didn’t take us all that long to figure out we had more to say and it was our job to say it.”

By writing a 496-page book, as opposed to the original article’s mere 13,000 words, the authors hope to present a more nuanced version of their case. They have taken in new examples to support their thesis, notably the second Lebanon war, which broke out in the interim, and have sought to address some of the points raised by critics.

The book follows the structure of the original article fairly faithfully, and its argument can be summarised thus: in recent years the US government has given Israel unconditional support, showering it with $3bn a year irrespective of the human rights violations it inflicts on the Palestinians. It was not always this way – think of the Suez crisis of 1956 when America stepped in to frustrate Israel’s (and Britain’s) ambitions. But from the 1960s onwards the relationship deepened to the extent that today American and Israeli interests are deemed by many Americans to be essentially identical.

The authors ask why this is the case, and argue that strategically there is no reason for it. The end of the cold war removed a central justification for the special relationship, as Israel no longer provided the US with a barrier to communism in the region. Post 9/11, the US and Israel are presented as partners against terrorism, but America’s vulnerability to attack partly stems from its support for Israel, which has provoked hostility in the Muslim world. Nor is there a moral argument for indiscriminately backing Israel – as a towering military presence in the Middle East, Israel is no longer under existential threat.

So what explains this ongoing largesse? The authors conclude that the answer lies with the Israel lobby, a loose coalition of individuals and organisations that wants US leaders to treat Israel as though it were the 51st state. The lobby stifles debate, inhibits criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and maintains the special relationship despite the fact that it has become a liability both for the US and for Israel itself.

In its transition from literary journal essay to stand-alone book, the authors have made a few telling alterations of presentation and emphasis. The most vivid is that in the body of the text they have demoted lobby to lower case: the Israel Lobby has become the Israel lobby. Walt sees that as the most minor of changes, remarking that: “John and I don’t even remember how the capital L got used in the first place.”

More substantially, perhaps, they have used the extra space to make several robust disclaimers, insisting that they have never questioned the right of Israel to exist or the legitimacy of the Israel lobby itself. They have also filed down some of the more jagged edges of their argument, such as their position on the role the lobby played in the build-up to the Iraq war. They still maintain that the war would “almost certainly not have occurred” were it not for the Israel lobby, but they soften the claim by adding that America’s belligerent mood in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington also had much to do with it.

Such nuances make for a more sophisticated read, but they fall far short of the revisions – the authors would say capitulations – that would be needed to satisfy their detractors.

Foxman is one of the most vocal critics. His new book, timed specifically to counteract the arrival on bookshelves of The Israel Lobby, pulls no punches. Its title is representative of the tone of the book: The Deadliest Lies. “This is a big lie that the Jewish people have lived with throughout history,” he tells me from his New York office. “Up to now these anti-semitic canards have been heard on the fringes, but to have two respected academics repeat them legitimises the debate and penetrates the mainstream.”

More measured – though still forceful – criticism of the Mearsheimer and Walt book has come from those titans of US journalism, the New York Times and the New Yorker. The Times’ book critic William Grimes takes a swipe at the authors’ claim that it is time for the US to treat Israel as a normal country: “But it’s not. And America won’t. That’s realism.” David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, suggests none too flatteringly that the book is symptomatic of a polarised era in which Americans are searching for an explanation to the evils of the times.

In the swirl of debate, the squabbling parties keep coming back to the core concept of an Israel lobby, case notwithstanding. The authors have been meticulously careful in the book to stress that they see the lobby as a loose coalition. It is not a single, unified movement and it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy. Yet no matter how profuse their disclaimers, they have not assuaged those antagonists for whom any lumping together of Jews or Jewish interest groups sets alarm bells ringing. “Visit any anti-semitic website and you’ll hear the same old themes: the Jews have too much power; they exercise political influence not as individual citizens but as a cabal,” writes Foxman. “Walt and Mearsheimer sound all the same notes, with a subtlety and pseudo-scholarly style that makes their poison all the more dangerous.”

In our conversation, Walt accepts the phrase “the lobby” is “an awkward term as many of the groups and people in it don’t operate on Capitol Hill. It’s shorthand – you could call it the pro-Israel movement”. One wonders why he and his co-author have stuck with it, then, when it has allowed their detractors to smear other more credible parts of their argument.

Take the slanging match over the causes of the Iraq war. Walt and Mearsheimer rightly lay a large part of the blame for this disastrous escapade on the neoconservatives within the Bush administration, but they then go on to define those neocons as an integral part of the Israel lobby. Books have been written about the various motivations of the neocons. Sympathy for Israel is one, but there are many others – the desire to spread democracy, a belief in the positive uses of military intervention, denigration of international institutions. To suggest that the neocons and the Israel lobby are one and the same is a conflation too far.

But the authors have brought into the open aspects of American intellectual life that needed airing. They cast light on the overweening activities of specific pro-Israeli groups, most importantly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Aipac is a self-avowed lobby (it calls itself America’s pro-Israel lobby) and has been ranked the second most powerful such body in the US. With a staff of more than 150 and a budget of $60m, it wields extensive influence among Congressmen, working to ensure criticism of Israel is rarely aired on Capitol Hill. The Guardian invited it to comment, but it declined.

Though Foxman insists the furore is proof that debate is alive and kicking, Walt and Mearsheimer have also put their finger on the limits of acceptable discourse in the US. It is notable that none of the candidates standing for president in 2008 have a word of criticism for Israeli state behaviour; this week Barack Obama pulled an advert for his campaign from the Amazon page selling The Israel Lobby, denouncing the book as “just wrong”.

So what happened to America’s commitment to free speech, the First Amendment? “We knew from De Tocqueville this country is driven by conformity,” Judt says. “The law can’t make people speak out – it can only prevent people from stopping free speech. What’s happened is not censorship, but self-censorship.” Judt believes that a few well-organised groups including Aipac have succeeded in proscribing debate. He recalls a prominent Democratic senator confiding to him that he would never criticise Israel in public. “He told me that if he did so, for the rest of his career he would never be able to get a majority for what he cared about. He would be cut off at the knees.”

In the final chapter of the book, Walt and Mearsheimer make a shopping list of reforms. They call for: a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis; greater separation of US foreign policy from Israel for both nations’ sake; and campaign finance reform to reduce the power of pro-Israeli groups.

Nothing outlandish, or even controversial, there. Coming at the end of such a bumpy ride of claim and counter-claim, the conclusion feels almost disappointingly gentle. That in itself bears eloquent witness to the state of affairs in America today, where thoughts considered unremarkable elsewhere are deemed beyond the pale.