I’ve made a tradition of reviewing my take on the new music scene each year since 2012, and the format seems to be working pretty well. I like it because it keeps me honest as a forcing function to remember what I heard over the course of the year and thoughtfully consider what I liked and didn’t like; and it’s useful as a reference for posterity. As usual, I missed some things and am already aware of them now, but I try to stay mostly in the confines of what I discovered during the year 2017 itself even though I’m now so late. So here now is the sixth annual edition of that effort — enjoy!
So-called “identity politics” have been on the rise for some years. Growing scholarship and discussion of systemic disadvantages against demographic groups has led to a rising and justified righteous anger against those forces. But especially in recent years this has resulted in a tendency for every social issue to be framed with a racist or sexist lens. The most outspoken purveyors of this framing are so sure of their analysis that their righteous anger has turned into self-righteous anger. Their quest to unite the disadvantaged through aggressive inclusion has actually backfired in division, an idea explored by the Guardian just last week.
My own sense of the perilousness of this approach has been growing slowly, but it crystallized in part while I was recently reading Tracy Kidder’s now-15-year-old book Mountains Beyond Mountains. While debating whether to write a full review of that work in the style of my previous book reviews, several editorials emerged which highlighted for me the most important takeaway: “identity politics” — which militantly reject debate and elevate tribalist and personal “truth” at the expense of individual liberty — at best waste time and at worst threaten the foundational principle of open debate in a free and progressive society.
The subtitle of Eric Schlosser’s latest work of investigative journalism, “Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” well captures the increasingly editorial arc of the book. Its centerpoint is a thriller-like recounting of the run-up to a non-nuclear 1980 explosion in Damascus, Arkansas; but the retelling of that event is interleaved with a long-form historical review of the design and implementation of America’s nuclear arsenal in the middle of the twentieth century. By degrees over its half-thousand pages the prose becomes increasingly critical of that history, culminating with the dramatic explosion at Damascus and the state of nuclear weapons in the United States after the end of the Cold War.
Based heavily on primary source documents and original interviews Schlosser himself conducted with weapons scientists and some of those involved in the Damascus accident, I find the actual text to be overlong and meandering. I would have preferred a more condensed and linear exposition, but reasonable people can disagree: Louis Menand wrote in his colorfully titled New Yorker review “Nukes of Hazard” that this suspenseful, achronological, and deeply personal narrative style is “how nonfiction should be written.” What we can agree on is that Schlosser convincingly argues that given the stunning degree of cognitive dissonance, bureaucratic impenetrability, and sheer number of nearly catastrophic nuclear accidents that have happened over the years, it’s truly a wonder that the last large-casualty nuclear event was deliberate, during wartime, and more than 70 years ago.
Vox is center-left opinion with well-documented conflicts of interest masquerading as objective analysis, but every now and again they have something resembling reporting. Such was actually the case — despite the explosive headline “Persuasive proof that America is full of racist and selfish people” — when they interviewed Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former Google data scientist and occasional New York Times contributor. In addition to backing up the assertion that anonymity fosters both nastiness and honesty, that article established an apparently strong correlation between the frequency of certain internet searches and broader trends in our polarized voter population around election day. I found the interesting big data analysis lurking behind the volatile headline to be most fascinating for supporting what I believe to be a general dysfunction of the mainstream progressive dialogue today and a major liability for Democrats.
I haven’t usually gotten these things out before the springtime, and for a number of reasons 2016 is more delayed than ever. But since ‘better late than never’ is usually well-applied — especially when this kind of analysis will serve future me with a (near-)real-time document of the day — and since 2016 was no 2015 but was also no slouch as far as new music goes, here again is my personal take on the best of the best of the last calendar year: general notes, the top ten albums, and a 20-track playlist of highlights. At least I beat the Summer Solstice on this one!
Late last year I read some interesting reporting from BBC about privacy in the digital age. The case at issue involved the state of Florida compelling an alleged voyeur to reveal the lock code of his iPhone which had been seized with probable cause. The defendant refused, citing his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself, but a Florida appeals court has ruled that the privilege could not have been invoked to block surrender of the code.
That’s an interesting result by itself; though, as a state-level appeal, that decision only has controlling precedent (for now) in Florida. But the BBC reporting really caught my attention for revealing some of the rationale of the appeals court’s decision, authored by Judge Anthony Black, in the story’s second half:
Judge Black referred to a famous Supreme Court case, Doe v US 1988, in which Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that a defendant could be made to surrender a key to a strongbox containing incriminating documents but they could not “be compelled to reveal the combination to his wall safe”.
“We question whether identifying the key which will open the strongbox – such that the key is surrendered – is, in fact, distinct from telling an officer the combination,” wrote Judge Black. “More importantly, we question the continuing viability of any distinction as technology advances.”
It happens that Justice Stevens was a favourite of mine before his retirement from the bench in 2010, and in fact this blog reviewed his 2014 book detailing his proposed constitutional amendments. I understood him to be a left-leaning civil libertarian, so it was surprising to hear an opinion of his cited to diminish the reach of one of the pillars of the Bill of Rights. I found the Doe opinion to be a quite interesting exercise in linguistic gymnastics, particularly, as Judge Black noted, amid the rapid advance of technology and the numerous and contentious questions about privacy that it has created. But beyond that, the case history led me down a 60-year-long rabbit hole of jurisprudence that I believe serves as a cautionary tale of how the Court can get it very wrong and the dramatic effects it can have on basic rights. With great care taken to exclude superfluous detail, I summarize that epic journey for you here.
A lot of people have been trying to make sense of Clinton’s loss to Trump last week. Conservative pundits not necessarily pleased with the rise of Trump have blamed an aggressive backlash to “weaponized” political correctness. On the left are continued complaints about Russian interference, even motivating calls that the Electoral College deny Trump the office when they vote next month. And extremist elements to both the far-right and far-left have responded with vandalism and violence.
The situation is frantic and there doesn’t seem to be consensus on what got us here. Many blame racism at a high level, but that charge lacks specificity and therefore explanatory power. All meaningful approaches rightly address the Electoral College, but the underyling forces seem yet to be clearly articulated. A careful study of two pro-Clinton apologetic flavours of voting analysis is instructive in understanding just how Trump won in 2016.
Subtitled The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan’s New York Times #1 Bestseller takes a purely secular look at the historical Jesus to draw the apparently uncontroversial conclusion that he was primarily a Jewish political agitator. Complete with exhaustive endnotes and a seemingly endless bibliography, Aslan shows he has studied the available literature in many languages — original source material in Greek and Aramaic as well as scholarly works in English and German. Because of its sometimes overly drawn out and mellifluous language, I don’t necessarily recommend reading Zealot unless the motivations of the historical Jesus in the context of his times and the evolution of his following is of particular interest to the reader. While not a novelization, the prose is both flowery and verbose, with chapters often repeating key facts probably with an eye to making them more independently consumable. Even so, the book is undeniably engaging and offers several profoundly interesting secular takeaways that help us to better understand how Jesus became the influential spiritual and religious figure he is seen as today. I offer a summary, or even a reorganization to taste, of the highlights.
One of the great journalistic developments of the last few years is the rise of The Intercept, the self-styled adversarial journal cofounded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill. Founded in the immediate aftermath of Edward Snowden’s NSA leak as an avenue for publication and analysis of those documents, the site has become a relatively fearless and eloquent site for objective reporting and progressive editorials.
But like any media group with an ideological agenda, the temptation for an unsubstantiated stretch to support a general claim is high. A short op-ed at the close of the Supreme Court’s term in late June by staff contributor Jon Schwarz raised my eyebrows for its sharp and sarcastic rhetoric accusing the Court of being self-contradictory and even activist in legitimizing the corrupting role of money in politics. The prevalence of pay-to-play corruption as a talking point in coverage of this election cycle motivates a closer look at both the editorial and the case.
It’s Supreme Court decision season as its term ends. On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a giant graphic on its front page purporting to document a leftward shift in the ideological bias of the Supreme Court. I learned about this from a damning takedown of the attribution of that graphic in an article on the blog of the nonprofit media watchdog FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting). What’s particularly interesting about that FAIR article is that it cites, in mockingly discrediting the assertion of any kind of progressive “golden age” for the Court, a shocking case that I had only days before learned about from a friend. The opportunity to criticize both the Times and the Court in one go was too much for FAIR to resist, and the same goes for me now.