Music for a Friday

The late Ted Hawkins, who died in 1994.

Damn, what a week this has been.

The Senate cravenly kowtowed and bootlicked its way to impeachment’s inevitable end. Rush Limbaugh received the same honor previously bestowed on Norman Rockwell, Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou. The president used the occasion of the National Prayer Breakfast to reject the teaching of Jesus that we love one another and vent his spleen at his political foes. Kirk Douglas died. And Iowa, as a friend poetically put it in a social media post, “left a brown puddle in the middle of the mattress.”

I mean, let’s be honest, if the highlight of the week is the courage of Mitt Romney, you know it’s been a rough one. Frankly, I feel more than a little sick. And this song “Sorry You’re Sick,” by the late Ted Hawkins, has got the cure. The first verse sets the scene, but the chorus!

Good morning, my darling, I’m telling you this, to let you know that I’m sorry you’re sick
Though tears of sorrow won’t do you no good, I’d be your doctor if only I could.

What do want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I’ll buy all that your belly can hold.
You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.

Hawkins was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, eventually playing to huge crowds overseas in the late 1980s. But with setbacks and disappointments here in the states, he turned to busking on the sands of California’s Venice Beach. Bill Dahl tells the story:

Hawkins existence was no day in the park. Born into abject poverty in Mississippi an abused and illiterate child, Hawkins was sent to reform school when he was 12 years old. He encountered his first musical inspiration there, from New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, whose visit to the school moved the lad to perform in a talent show. But it wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble. At age 15, he stole a leather jacket and spent three years at Mississippi’s infamous state penitentiary, Parchman Farm. 

Roaming from Chicago to Philadelphia to Buffalo after his release, Hawkins left the frigid weather behind in 1966, purchasing a one-way ticket to L.A. Suddenly, music beckoned; he bought a guitar and set out to locate the ex-manager of Sam Cooke (one of his idols). No such luck, but he did manage to cut his debut 45, the soul-steeped “Baby”/”Whole Lot of Women,” for Money Records. When he learned no royalties were forthcoming from its sales, Hawkins despaired of ever making a living at his music and took to playing on the streets. 

Fortunately, producer Bruce Bromberg was interested in Hawkins’ welfare, recording his delightfully original material in 1971, both with guitarist Phillip Walker’s band (“Sweet Baby” was issued as a single on the Joliet label), and in a solo acoustic format (with Ted’s wife Elizabeth occasionally adding harmonies). The producer lost touch with Hawkins for a while after recording him, Hawkins falling afoul of the law once again. In 1982, those tapes finally emerged on Rounder as Watch Your Step, and Hawkins began to receive some acclaim (Rolling Stone gave it a five-star review). Bromberg corralled him again for the 1986 encore album Happy Hour, which contained the touching “Cold & Bitter Tears.” 

At the behest of a British deejay, Hawkins moved to England in 1986 and was treated like a star for four years, performing in Great Britain, Ireland, France, and even Japan. But when he came home, he was faced with the same old situation. Once again, he set up his tip jar on the beach, donned the black leather glove he wore on his fretting hand, and played for passersby.

“Sorry You’re Sick” comes from that first major release on Rounder, and is a joy to listen to. It is the perfect treatment for this bad week, and every bad week. Give it a listen.

“Milanos’ bayonet”

(Credit: Clifford Harper)

How terrorism is justified, in three quotes:

The situation with the environment is not getting better, it’s getting worse. I’m not suggesting that the path of destruction and destroying everything, is the right path. But I didn’t know what to do. When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, then what the hell are you supposed to say? What are you supposed to do?

Daniel McGowan, Earth Liberation Front, 2007

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence.

Christopher Hasson, U.S. Coast Guard, 2019

The time for words has ended. The time for podcasts has ended. The time for talk has ended. If you’re wasting your time simply thinking there’s going to be a movementarian approach to the coming problems, you think that podcasts are the solution they’re not. If you think talking is a solution, it is not. If you think politics is a solution, you are a damn fool. … The system does not want a peaceful solution, the system has prevented a peaceful solution at every possible turn. It is the system that is fomenting violent revolution, not us, and they shall now reap what they have sown.

Patrik Mathews, The Base, 2020

Three examples of the logic that underpins the decision that terrorists and would be terrorists make to reject normal politics and turn to violence to advance their cause. Organizing does not work. Protest does not work. Politics does not work.

What is left is violence. Thus, as the Italian socialist and revolutionary Carlo Pisacane wrote in 1857:

The propaganda of the idea is a chimera; the education of the people is nonsense. Ideas result from deeds, and not the latter from the former; it is not the case that the people will be free once it is educated, rather it will be educated once it is free. The only work a citizen can undertake to benefit his country is to contribute to the material revolution: conspiracies, plots, insurrectional attempts, etc. … The flash of Milano’s bayonet was a more effective propaganda than a thousand volumes written by doctrinaires.

This week in terrorism history: Feb. 3-9

The aftermath of the Wall Street bombing, Sept. 16, 1920. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty)

The president’s State of the Union address is tomorrow night. Two years ago, President Trump used the occasion to argue for his travel bans and hard line on immigration by claiming that chief threat of terrorism in the United States came from foreign-born perpetrators.

As I argued here, Trump’s assessment was based on a highly suspect piece of threat analysis from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice. This report, relying on dubious methodology and cherry picking its cases, completely ignored the reality that the vast majority of terrorism perpetrated in the United States has not come from refugees or immigrants (legal or otherwise), but from red-blooded Americans attacking other Americans in the name of particularly American political and social causes.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s 2018 SOTU, in trying to advance a stalled policy agenda by leveraging fear of terrorism to whip up a politically useful anti-immigrant frenzy, is nothing new. But like so much of Trump’s approach to politics and policy, it is a throwback to an earlier, darker period in American history.

Before Timothy McVeigh used a truck bomb to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil occurred on Sept. 16, 1920, with the bombing of the JP Morgan Bank on Wall Street. Nearly 40 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. As historian Kevin Jennings wrote in The Washington Post, this event became the catalyst for a public backlash against and policy assault targeting immigrants:

The 1920 bombing came at a highly sensitive time in American history. The early 20th century saw a massive influx of immigrants into the United States, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. Largely Jewish and Catholic, these immigrants were seen as alien to what was then a largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country. Many of them also subscribed to left-wing political ideologies that were seen as threats to the United States (especially after the Bolshevik Revolution brought communism to Russia in 1917). This combination produced the kindling for a massive backlash.

The result was a “Red Scare” targeting largely left-wing immigrant activists.

In 1919 the Department of Justice (yes, the same agency that authored the above-mentioned study) launched the Palmer Raids, rounding up thousands of leftist political activists and deporting as many as possible back to their home countries. Following the Wall Street bombing, the DOJ’s Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of today’s FBI) charged a very young J. Edgar Hoover with investigating the attack, and the New York City Police Department formed a special unit to monitor “radical elements” in the city.

Two points to keep in mind as we move on to this week’s look back at terrorism history.

  • First, the United States has long experienced terrorism on its own soil, even if many in the public (and my students) awakened to the fact only after 9/11.
  • Second, when terrorism happens in the US, it’s almost always Americans attacking other Americans. For perspective, in 1970 alone, there were 54 terrorist bombings in New York City. Three of those attacks unfolded over successive days in September. Ten attacks took place in March. All were carried out by Americans.

Now on to this week’s list.

  • Feb. 4, 2009 — Barbacoas, Colombia: Seventeen civilians are stabbed to death in an attack. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) claims responsibility.
  • Feb. 6, 1995 — Stinatz, Austria: One person is injured in a bombing targeting tourists. Neo-Nazi extremists are blamed for the attack.
  • Feb. 7, 1991 — London: The Provisional Irish Republican Army launches a mortar attack on No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of Prime Minister John Major. Three people are wounded.
  • Feb. 8, 1984 — Paris: A gunman from the Abu Nidal Organization assassinates Khalifa Ahmed Abdel Aziz Al-Mubarak, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to France.
  • Feb. 9, 2000 — Turkey: The PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) announces a formal halt to armed struggle and announces a new name, Kongra-Gel. Abdullah Occalan, who led the PKK, is reelected to lead the new organization.

Cue Inigo Montoya

The last week of nail-biting US foreign policy and flirtation with all-out war against Iran has served to highlight a couple of basic concepts that the Trump administration clearly does not comprehend. I’m going to touch on one here.

Let’s talk about the concept of “imminence.” The assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in Iraq a week ago was justified, according to President Trump, because Soleimani was planning “imminent and sinister” attacks that would kill Americans. The president elaborated:

“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump said during brief remarks at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “We did not take action to start a war.”

Without divulging details about what led to the early morning airstrike that killed Soleimani and nine others, the president said the United States “caught” the general “in the act and terminated him.”

OK, sounds serious. After all, the standard definition of “imminent” is that something is “likely to occur at any moment.”

Unless you’re Secretary of State Mike Pompeo …

Apparently the secretary also doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “consistent.”

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

At least that’s the implication of a new report in the Washington Post this afternoon:

On the day the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, U.S. forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.

The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.

If this latest report is accurate, then what the United States did in assassinating Soleimani was not a defensive use of pre-emptive military force, but an aggressive act of war. One which, so far, has not spiraled out of control.

So far.