Sunday, July 20, 2008

Marshall Plan Creep

More and more often, the Marshall Plan is used rhetorically-- by politicians, pundits, and the like-- as a paragon for what this country needs. Just in the past month, the Plan has been used as a model for what we need on foreign aid, Iraq, literacy, Pakistan, economic security, climate change, and Czech missile defense. And that's just the beginning of the list.

I'm as much enamored with the success of the Marshall Plan as anybody else (I even went to a panel discussion of the Plan's legacy at the German Marshall Fund last summer), but let's get serious here. The investment required for the Plan is not the kind of thing we can pop off for every issue that rolls around. What's more, it's not a great analogy for things that don't entail sending piles of money overseas to help rebuild allies. The most apt analogy in that list is foreign aid-- kudos to Barack for that--but I, William Easterly, and other aid skeptics aren't sold on Obama's idea that doubling foreign aid to Africa will solve many problems.

As for the other problems on that list, I might invoke other successes of 20th century American history as more apt analogies for what's needed. Let's not forget the Manhattan Project, the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo program, the GI Bill, and others. I'm a fan of massive, concerted investment by the government-- these are some of the greatest successes of the past 80 years, and they yielded new technology, new infrastructure, and renewed faith in America. Of course it costs, but investment is sacrifice, and our country has gotten too fat and comfortable, too used to getting what we want without giving anything up. Note that the most recent of those successes, the Apollo program, reached fruition nearly forty years ago. So, while I'm cynical about the overuse of the Marshall Plan as a rhetorical device, I'm generally inclined to agree with the sentiment.

And that's what I hope to see from Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in August. I want him to ask me to do something, ask me to make a sacrifice, tell me that even though the economy isn't in great shape, now more than ever we need to come together and put our energy toward solving the daunting challenges we face. In the vein of JFK's "ask what you can do for your country," I want to hear Obama make a call for everyone to make small sacrifices for a larger cause, something bigger than themselves. People want to believe in America, and they need to hear this. My generation, particularly, wants it, and, I think, would respond.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Saturday Song: Obama, by Extra Golden

The Kenyan-American fusion band Extra Golden blends rock with benga-- a guitar-heavy Kenyan dance music that's been around since the 1960s-- creating a groove so deep you can't see the bottom.

They came together through Ian Eagleson's doctoral research which brought him to study benga in Kenya. He and his band partner Alex Minoff teamed up with Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari of Orchestra Extra Solar Africa to record an initial album in 2004, shortly before Otieno's untimely death.

They were invited to the 2006 Chicago World Music Festival, and Opiyo Bilongo (who, according to the band's website, "has been a dangerous presence on the Kenyan Benga scene for over a decade") stepped in for Otieno, with Otieno's brother, Onyango Jagwasi, contributing as an occasional songwriter and lyricist.

The trouble was, neither Opiyo nor Onyango Wuod Omari could get visas to the states. With their American partners pulling every string in sight, eventually they got help from Senator Barack Obama, and the two Kenyans were able to visit the U.S., traveling outside West Africa for the first time in their lives.

Out of gratitude to the Senator, their second album, Hera Ma Nono, features a song of thanks and praise titled "Obama." According to benga custom, the band also thanks his wife, Michelle, and his mother, Ann. Listen here, and enjoy the video clips of Barack being Barack, plus some sexy benga dancers.

After two years apart, the band reconvened this year for a tour. They received critical praise for their performance at Bonnaroo. They're still around, and if you've got any sense at all, you'll go see them. Those who share my musical tastes, take note: they're sharing the Prospect Park bandshell with Habib Koite on August 3rd!

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Meditation on Pilots

I like airplane pilots. They come across as strong, gentle, fatherly men (and they’re always men… how odd), their voices calm and confident on the loudspeaker. Not like recalcitrant airline ground employees or snippy flight attendants, I never get the sense that the pilot is my opponent in some miniature battle. He’s a lawyer, combating dictatorial air traffic controllers and gnarly turbulence on behalf of his charges—a fellow human, fighting for you to be treated with the dignity you deserve, but rarely receive as a passenger and customer.

But pilots all have a peculiar tic that makes them seem a little removed from the common man. Every pilot I’ve ever flown with is obsessed with the wind. Whenever you take off and land, and sometimes mid-flight, the pilot will always—always—let you know which way the wind is blowing, and how fast, both just outside the plane, and at your destination. Sure, I’m glad they know about wind—I suspect it plays a role in how they fly the plane, and without this knowledge, we’d probably end up in a charred wreck. But they don’t seem to realize that nobody else knows or cares much about the wind. I don’t even really know how fast a knot of wind is. Would one knot make it difficult to read a newspaper? Would three knots be enough to fly a kite? I find it hard to imagine that many vacationers make any plans based on current wind conditions.

(Hey Chuck, the long fairway on the 15th hole at Pebble Beach heads right into the setting sun! With a four knot tailwind out of the south-east, I just might birdie that son of a gun!)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Me and the Sea

Screwed by Peter Pan and a mean, stubborn bus driver, I stood stranded and exhausted at the Woods Hole ferry station after 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, 8 hours before the next ferry would depart for Martha’s Vineyard. Alongside eight fellow victims, I was not alone, but we were at the end of the line, and I began scouting the wharf for a nice spot to sleep.

A swarthy man in a Steamship Authority uniform ambled up. After chewing out our bus driver for failing to expedite our trip and get us there four minutes earlier, he offered a last-ditch option. The Patriot Party Boat—a chartered fishing boat—would make an 11pm trip to carry the morning newspapers to the island. Feeling like commandos, the nine of us piled into a cab, and rocketed through Falmouth to the boat’s berth. We arrived to find the harbor nearly empty, save for a few silent Chinese fishermen dangling lines off the pier. We fruitlessly searched the port’s buildings, but our hope was renewed when a gabby Indonesian man showed up, and I sweet-talked him into driving me down to investigate the other end of the wharf, where the Patriot Party Boat Too was docked. The far end, it turned out, was more deserted than the near. I returned, and my group of nine began to despair, while I again looked for a comfy bundle of ropes to pass out on.

As if materializing out of the mist, an ageless man appeared in work pants and a white button-down shirt, open at the top, revealing dark chest hair, sprinkled with white. “Looks like you folks need a ride to the island;” he was like the stalwart, friendly father out of “One Morning in Maine,” and our savior. As it turned out, we were just lucky—the early edition of the Sunday Globe had already gone over, and the news sections wouldn’t go for a few hours yet—but the friendly fisherman had to make the trip to pick up a five-piece jazz band that had just finished their set in Oak Bluffs.

The ocean is black at night, and we passengers sat silent, exhausted and relieved, enveloped by darkness as the harbor lights grew small. Only the roar of the diesel engine cut through the thick gloom. The summer solstice moon rose in the east as we hummed over the water, and it sat lazily on the horizon, looking as though someone had dipped their thumb in red-orange paint, and smudged it on the sky.