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Music Notes

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It’s time for an entirely too long post about music. It’s too long because I didn’t get around to finishing anything while I kept listening to new albums and reading new stories. Well, maybe it will provide enough material to avoid a long discussion about the “merits” of Yes in the comments.

Here is a really great essay on Cecil Taylor. Among the many things in here that I didn’t know is something that probably a lot of people do know: that Miles hired Herbie Hancock over Taylor for his classic quintet and that Taylor never forgave him for it. It just made me wonder how different Miles’ 60s work would have been with Taylor. Or maybe how different Taylor’s career would have looked. Taylor was also a pretty wild guy, as this goes into in great detail.

I have come to the conclusion that the 3 best rock bands of all time are, in some order, the Stones, Sleater-Kinney, and Led Zeppelin. I know that in public culture, all the good bands were around between 1965 and 1977, but there’s no reason that a contemporary rock band can’t be considered the best band of all time and there’s every reason to think that Sleater-Kinney is in fact that band. Every album they’ve ever made has been absolutely fucking brilliant, with remarkable consistency and ground-breaking awesomeness, both musically and in the fact that it is an all-female band. Sure, breaking up between 2005 and 2015 is one knock, but they were active almost as long as LZ and being a band forever hasn’t exactly helped bolster the Stones’ overall quality given the last 30 years. Anyhow, after No Cities to Love came out, which is somehow perhaps their second least successful album and an album I would also grade an A or even A+, Spin put together a list of all S-K songs ranked, which is worth considering here.

I haven’t heard the new Neko Case album yet. But this is a fantastic interview with her. Neko has approximately 0 fucks to give and it’s just great, especially talking about being a woman in the music industry. But let me also point out that her opinion on what has happened to the Pacific Northwest is even more dismayed and angry than mine (I’m more ambivalent) and so good that I plan to use it in this history of the recent Northwest book I am writing.

When people asked Case to describe Tacoma, she’d say it was the Baltimore of the West: a thing that people from Baltimore understood, but few others could. “It’s not describable,” she told me. “It existed in a lot of different fragments at the same time.” But Case is the one who’s described it best: “A sour and used-up ol’ place,” she sings in “Thrice All American,” with buildings “empty like ghettos of ghost towns.” And yet it remains beloved: “I can’t seem to fathom the dark of my history / I invented my own in Tacoma.”

A friend from Tacoma recently told Case that people from nearby Seattle were coming down and wanted to know where the good places are to live, spouting off, “Tacoma is actually cool!” “And I just wanna go, ‘Fuck you, don’t pretend you ever fucking liked it here, because you didn’t,’” Case says. “You talked shit about it here until you had a kid and now you have to move somewhere. Just because you’re standing here doesn’t make it cool now.”

But she tries to remain unsentimental about the cities she’s lost. “The thing that keeps me from, like, overly clutching that pearl is that I think about all the Native Americans that are still there, and have to look at this stuff going in, on their ancestral land, and it’s like, I have no business being uptight about people going to Tacoma. My heartbreak is nothing. I’m just a person with no home.”

See also, my home town of Springfield now that Eugene is getting quite pricey. I know I loved California and Portland assholes in college saying they were sorry when I said I was from Springfield. In case I didn’t already have a chip on my shoulder about class.

Incidentally, I know I am in the minority to those who love her early work, but I thought The Worse Things Get was the best album of her career.

A favorite hobby of mine is finding old Pitchfork review of great albums that received bad reviews because the artist wasn’t hip enough at the time. Thus, this review of PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, which may be the greatest albums of the 21st century, so long as you use the colloquial understanding of the century starting in 2000.

This is a really interesting essay on why people are so obsessed with The Replacements, considering that they were barely a band most of the time.

Cool story on Japanese jazz cafes.

Reggie Lucas, who played guitar on those great Miles Davis performances at the end of the experimental electric period and then went on to produce Madonna’s first album, died after a long history of heart problems.

The legendary Jalal Mansur Nurridin of The Last Poets also died. One of the founders of rap and one of the critical musical voices in the Black Power era, this is a big loss. Another big loss is Elvis’s drummer, D.J. Fontana. It’s easy to forget these sidemen, but they were utterly critical in creating the sound of early pioneers like Elvis.

Other recent deaths in the music world include the British prog drummer Jon Hiseman, the early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, Blind Boys of Alabama stalwart Clarence Fountain, the Chicago-based blues guitarist Eddy Clearwater and Jonathan Fire*Easter frontman Stewart Lupton.

With my wife away all last week, I’ve had even more time to listen to music than usual. So here’s a whole lotta album reviews:

Wussy, What Heaven is Like

My favorite band puts out yet another very good album. Like their last release, I don’t think this quite hits the heights of Funeral Dress or Strawberry or Attica, but it’s a very good rock album. This is really a Chuck album more than a Lisa album, in that I think his songs are a bit more successful. The opener “One Per Customer” with its great opening bit about wishing you were an astronaut back when astronauts had more appeal, setting a tone of tremendous ambivalence, is one of his best songs ever and then there is his awesome cover of the obscure Twinkeyz’s “Aliens in Our Midst,” which they were playing live on the tour from the last album and which is just a great punk song. Lisa’s top highlight here is the great “Gloria,” based on the character from the TV show Fargo and is one her classic songs of strivers trying to make it in this world. Not every song on the album signifies like their very best material, in part because they’ve moved so heavily into the noise of John Erhardt’s weird playing of the steel guitar that it can dominate Lisa’s voice, but it’s worth thinking about this band through its now pretty long history. This band has released 7 albums and each and every one is between very good and a classic. As Christgau, the godfather of this band, has noted, this is Stones territory in terms of consistency. Lots of bands put out 1 or 2 great albums, but who puts out 7 excellent albums in a row, plus several worthwhile EPs? It’s really hard. Take my other favorite band, Drive-By Truckers. It might be that their heights are higher than Wussy’s, although not by much. But they definitely don’t have the same consistency, as albums such as Blessing and a Curse and The Big To-Do aren’t really very good. Who knows how long Wussy can keep releasing albums, but this has been quite a run for one of the most underrated bands in rock history.

A-

Speedy Ortiz, Twerp Verse

I really like Speedy Ortiz’s last album, Foil Deer. It’s melodic punkiness and attitude appealed to me greatly and I was wondering when another album would come out. Turns out they had a bunch of songs, then the election happened, and they started over. What replaced those songs isn’t exactly an overtly political record, but it is a record of giving not too many fucks and talking back to whatever is bothering Sadie Dupuis. There’s a strong #MeToo aspect to these songs, delivered in great bits of accessible poppiness. A very fun album and a very strong folow up to Foil Deer.

A-

U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited

This is a very fine album. Very fine. How great it is? I’ll even forgive the lyrical silliness of “M.A.H.” in which she talks about how mad as Hell she is at Barack Obama for being a militaristic sellout of the big banks. Given that I don’t look for political leadership from musicians or judge them by their politics, unlike some publications on the left, whatever. Because while Meg Remy’s earlier work was kind of sad and introspective in ways, she started coming out of her shell on the very good Half Free and on In a Poem Unlimited, she has suddenly a full indie pop persona with deep disco influences that make me want to listen to this album over and over again. And hey, maybe there are good reasons to be mad at Obama anyway. Say what you want about the man over music this good.

This is right there with the Superchunk album as the best 2018 album I’ve heard so far.

A

Tom Russell, Folk Hotel

There’s no easy way to review this album without something of a career retrospective on an artists I used to care about very much. Russell started his country-folk recording career after years of playing tough bars in New York and Vancouver and Oslo, developing a cache of some great songs. The albums from the 1980s are a bit mixed. They range from great Poor Man’s Dream, (A and with the legendary “Gallo del Cielo” and the co-written with Ian Tyson “Navajo Rug”) to good Road to Bayamon (B+) to pretty mediocre Hurricane Season (C). Then he had a couple of mid career retrospectives, one of his great western songs with some extra tunes added, Song of the West (A-) and then his other songs The Long Way Around (B+). Russell then released a series of albums between really good and truly fantastic: The Rose of the San Joaquin (A), The Man From God Knows Where (A-), Borderland (A), Indians Horses Cowboys Dogs (B+). This was a guy who wrote incredibly beautiful songs about the American experience, about love and broken relationships, about the West both old and new, about Mexico. But in the mid-2000s, Russell began to engage in a deeply damaging new subject: writing bitter nostalgic screeds about how everything used to be better. His bizarre album Hotwalker, which is about his relationship with Charles Bukowski and includes a lot of told stories from this dwarf carnie Bukowski used to hang out with is supposed to represent The Old Weird America that Russell loved, but it’s an awful album (D-, salvaged from a full F by a great country song called “Grapevine) and Modern Art, which is mostly bad covers and half-baked songs about the 60s (C). Russell came back with a couple more solid albums with relatively low tinges of his nostalgia and which both had great songs, Love and Fear (A-) and Blood and Candle Smoke (B+). But the reason the latter doesn’t rank a bit higher is his cranky nostalgia occasionally showing its head. That leads us to Russell’s last few albums. Mesabi (C-) was a full-blown exercise in the 50s and 60s being better than today, including a song of him doing an impression of a bitter Sterling Hayden. No one needs Sterling Hayden impersonations on an album. There is one good song on this “Jai Alai” and the rest is bad. And his two-disc cowboy opera The Rose of Roscrae is just a mess of a narrative with too many guest artists and no real cohesion (C).

I had mixed hopes for Folk Hotel, Russell’s latest album. I basically figured he was finished as a good songwriter but given that the album wasn’t explictly about his nostalgia kick, I had some hope. And it’s a highly mixed album. “Up in the Old Hotel” itself serves as an excuse to name drop a bunch of heroes again. There are some fairly decent songs on here–I worried that a song called “The Last Time I Saw Hank” would be another exercise in how artists of the past are so much better than today, but it was actually a pretty great song about lost that included some discussion of his father, the last time he saw George Jones play, and other exercises in talking about the past usefully. “I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses” is a very fine song about an old man who can’t get himself to leave the ranch. Turns out it is about Ian Tyson being unwilling to move to town in his old age, but it has a timeless quality that makes the specific subject not actually matter. But overall, most of these songs are feel fairly flat and not overly inspired. Russell can be such a wonderful songwriter–his best 15-20 songs are equal to anyone who has ever worked in the folk-country-Americana genre–so I still have hope for the future. This is just OK.

B-

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, Body and Shadow

Solid if not spectacular jazz album by this combo influenced by Americana. Excellent playing, solid contributions, a proper length at around 40 minutes, avoiding the all too common jazz habit of 75 minute albums. Worth your time, some will like this very much.

B+

Ryley Walker, Deafman Glance

I saw Walker a couple of years ago and while I didn’t think his albums were that great, he sure put on a hell of a live show. It was very much what I imagine an early 70s Van Morrison show to be like, jazzy, energetic, great musicians, tons of fun. His new album just reinforces my belief. He’s not a great songwriter, although his lyrics are properly odd, which often gets translated into being a great songwriter, but I don’t rate them so high. The playing is however quite good, making this an enjoyable listen and I look forward to checking him out again on his fall tour.

B

Thomas Rhett, Life Changes

I would never normally listen to anything referred to as “pop country.” But this was supposed to be well-written pop country, so for the sake of my own knowledge, I thought I’d give this album by the son of Rhett Atkins a try. It’s fucking horrible. I don’t know what the hell this is but it is not country music. That in itself doesn’t matter–labels aren’t meaningful and I don’t really care about authenticity or pure country music or whatever. Country music is always changing anyway. But this is just pure pop music and not good pop music at that. That said, I know it actually gets worse, because Rhett mostly avoids the worst of the cliches of radio-friendly country music, which I am frequently exposed to in getting my hair cut in small town western Pennsylvania and which consist of little more than recombined lists of “girlfriend, backs of trucks, fishing, football, nostalgia about mom and dad, beer and whiskey” and a few other things. So it’s not an F. It’s still a shitty album.

D+

Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow

I think I first took this band seriously on a recommendation from Simon and I put their latest album on my list of things to hear. I finally got around to it and I am glad I did. This album is filled with compassionate, bittersweet, memorable songs, well-played and arranged. Fine folk-rock music that I need to hear more of.

A-

LCD Soundsystem, American Dream

I confess to not being a big fan of most electronic and dance music. But I’ve loved LCD Soundsystem ever since I first heard them right after Sound of Silver came out. The reason: James Murphy is a fantastic lyricist. These aren’t just grooves and beats, they are fully-formed songs that stand up to any more lyrically-inclined genre. After a long break, Murphy reformed the band last year and I should have listened to this then, but I was so overwhelmed with other new music. American Dream is another big success, with another album of great beats and sounds and lyrics, all of which help define the present.

A-

Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet, Ladilikan

Trio Da Kali is a Malian griot band and the Kronos Quartet, well, you know about them and if you don’t, take care of that. What this is is the trio using the quartet to replace the traditional griot beat with strings. This is the kind of world music collaboration that both respects tradition and moves music forward. It’s sweet and touching and fun. That said, I kept thinking this album would be better if it was just a Trio Da Kali album with the traditional rhythm. So in the end, I respect the heck out of this, even if I don’t exactly love it.

B+

Finally, I would like to thank our great commenter howard for sending me some great jazz. I know I speak for my co-bloggers when I say that it is very kind when readers send us anything off our wishlists or anything else, as this is a poorly compensated way of spending our time and gifts in kind fill those gaps.

As always, this is an open thread for all things music and none things politics.

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cjmcnamara
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SotD: O vis aeternitatis

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Ladies, gentlemen, and others, welcome to the 2018 Song of the Day closing sequence. This has been a lot of work and I thought I should try to end it with more than just a set of random tunes, so I picked a theme: Worship, the sacred, and the divine. To start, from Hildegard von Bingen, the oldest song to appear, first sung sometime in the years around 1150: O vis aeternitatis means “The Power of Eternity”.

Hildegard was a remarkable person; reading her Wikipedia entry makes me want to find out more. Normally, upon discovering an interesting ancient I’d go looking for their own writings in translation. But the snippets of Hildegard I’ve read seem to show her as coming from another planet, living inside a spirituality that I can’t begin to grasp.

Which brings us to the subject of The Divine, to which I am profoundly grateful. No, not to any individual divinity, because I don’t believe in any; I mean to the broader notion, which has inspired so much beautiful music, for as long as music has been made. O vis aeternitatis is a fine example, the voice soaring up and up and up, serene as an eagle over the Pacific.

The world Hildegard inhabited, of faith made real in cloisters and their communities, is as remote as that lived by the characters in the sci-fi I enjoy reading. Sometimes a conservative commentator waxes nostalgic for the passing of the stern simple faiths of feudal times, and lament the current loss of grip on Divine Truth. But I like the modern flavor of truth better; a thing contingent on evidence and argument, difficult to establish but worth the effort. Particularly in our troubled twenty-first century, a time when truth is seen as an enemy in the corridors of power. But still, those voices echoing under the high stone curves in the candle-lit dimness.

Riesencodex 466 R

Above, a manuscript of O vis aeternitatis, probably prepared in Hildegard’s lifetime, from the Riesencodex, a compendium, published shortly after her death, of almost all of her works — musical, epistolary, and theological — a huge 15-kg tome held in Wiesbaden. You can leaf through it, starting here; the above is from page 466 R. The musical notation is not modern.

I’ve long loved a recording called A Feather on the Breath of God; music by Hildegard, performed by Gothic Voices and the wonderful Emma Kirkby. But you can’t stream it and it doesn’t have O vis aeternitatis. Since Hildegard is best consumed an hour or so at a time, I recommend Canticles of Ecstasy, which has really nice arrangements.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. I found a really special live performance, lit by candles in an ancient-seeming art gallery in Perm, in the heart of Russia.

Thanks to, uh, Whoever for the fact that not believing in Whoever doesn’t get in the way of appreciating the effects of believing in Whoever by those who do.

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cjmcnamara
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manuscript alert
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Download of the Week: "Data Pollution" by Ben-Shahar

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The Download of the Week is Data Pollution by Omri Ben-Shahar.  Here is the abstract:

Digital information is the fuel of the new economy. But like the old economy's carbon fuel, it also pollutes. Harmful "data emissions" are leaked into the digital ecosystem, disrupting social institutions and public interests. This article develops a novel framework- data pollution-to rethink the harms the data economy creates and the way they have to be regulated. It argues that social intervention should focus on the external harms from collection and misuse of personal data. The article challenges the hegemony of the prevailing view-that the harm from digital data enterprise is to the privacy of the people whose information is used. It claims that a central problem has been largely ignored: how the information individuals give affects others, and how it undermines and degrade public goods and interests. The data pollution metaphor offers a novel perspective why existing regulatory tools-torts, contracts, and disclosure law-are ineffective, mirroring their historical futility in curbing the external social harms from environmental pollution. The data pollution framework also opens up a rich roadmap for new regulatory devices-an environmental law for data protection-that focus on controlling these external effects. The article examines whether the general tools society has long used to control industrial pollution-production restrictions, carbon tax, and emissions liability-could be adapted to govern data pollution.

Highly recommended.

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cjmcnamara
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cap and trade but tweets
wreichard
1 hour ago
Vitriol recapture?
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TONY, PART ONE: THE GOOD

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I'm not much for reacting to Celebrity Deaths; they don't make me feel any differently than hearing about the death of anyone I don't know personally. But for reasons I'll elaborate more fully tomorrow, the Anthony Bourdain news got to me a little bit.

One aspect of watching people react to it was actually a positive, I think. This random observation summed up the way I see changes in how people talk about Celebrities:

When I first posted a comment on Facebook about how much I like Bourdain's non-fiction writing, a single comment (since redacted by its author) leaped in to do the tired "HAVE YOU READ KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL, IT'S THE BIBLE OF MISOGYNY WHY DO YOU LIKE A MISOGYNIST." Predictably, it was a dude. All of the comments from women were about how much they liked Anthony Bourdain.

It is inarguable that Kitchen Confidential, written 20 years ago, has some cringe-worthy passages in it. In fact, as I pointed out in response, Bourdain has written a number of things reflecting on how he feels looking back at his own writing from that time and seeing how "dated" some of the comments and some of the situations he describes feel. He has been, I think, pretty reflective about his own attitudes. And frankly, anyone who looks at something describing what they thought and felt 20 years earlier and doesn't feel like they've outgrown some or most of it as a person is…a person who is not progressing emotionally or intellectually through adulthood.

The point is, the incessant Dragging and "OMG EVERYONE IS PROBLEMATIC" thing that started a few years ago really feels like it's running its course. I honestly think your average intelligent person is getting a bit sick of it. The point is not "Misogyny is no big deal and everyone should give everyone a free pass." The point is, it adds literally nothing to the conversation to say something like this. Not one person who likes Anthony Bourdain is unaware of some of the things he said and wrote. It's just possible – and here's the part that is starting to dawn on more of us – that it isn't absolutely imperative to define every single person by the worst thing we can find evidence of them saying. Maybe rather than barging into conversations to Out Woke everyone with your dazzling insight about something that is already universally known, consider that people who like and respect a particular person's work are adults who understand that person's shortcomings and failings.

It's a matter of degrees, of course. If Bourdain had done something truly horrific in life (and maybe he did, for all we know) then it's fair to temper how we look at his work. But honest to god, and you can Drag me to high heaven for feeling this way if you prefer, with all the good work he did and as many people as he helped in life I legitimately do not give a fuck that he said "two fat chicks" on an episode of his TV show. I don't. I really do not care at all. The idea that we have to stop liking everything a person did if any evidence of anything Problematic they ever said or did can be unearthed (which, of course, it always can be) is exhausting and counterproductive and it feels like many people who care deeply about the world and people in it are getting a little sick of it.

There were glimmers of this in the recent past when Philip Roth died. Apparently Philip Roth was kind of a prick. Fair enough. But do you really think, for example, that if a person read a Roth novel at a particular time in their life at which that work had a powerful impact on them that he or she is going to retroactively stop feeling that way if you barge into enough conversations like some college sophomore six weeks into his first sociology class shouting "You mean Philip Roth THE MISOGYNIST"?

Shitty people do great things sometimes. And people who create things have a real impact on the lives of people who read, watch, listen to, and see those things. That doesn't have to go away just because someone has a valid criticism of that person. Granted, it's impossible to enjoy anything Woody Allen makes or made anymore, but Woody Allen has done that to himself by being a truly heinous person. He, or someone like Bill Cosby, are a different matter than "Anthony Bourdain used to laugh his ass off while people in his kitchen made crude sex jokes" or, to cite another recent YOU CAN'T LIKE THIS BECAUSE PROBLEMATIC fit, Donald Glover said "fag" on Twitter once five years ago. Yeah OK thanks for the info, I'm still going to think "This is America" is great if that's acceptable to the court.

The point is, it feels like we're working through the nuance, as the post I screencapped here says. Maybe we can save the Dragging for legitimately horrible people and spare it for people who said things they might, in hindsight, have wished they had not said. It's dawning on us that literally any person can be made Problematic and bad, including you, if we insist on defining them by whatever the absolute worst interpretation of the worst thing they said or did is. And we don't have to do that. We don't have to destroy everything and everyone. It is OK, even, if we just fucking enjoy some things and like some people.

And finally, it's OK to recognize that shouting "OMG THE THING YOU LIKE IS BAD, THE PERSON YOU LIKE SAID A BAD THING ONCE SO YOU ARE BAD FOR LIKING THE BAD MAN" does not make you useful or more enlightened or more Woke than everyone else. It just kind of makes you a prick, and a person who isn't growing out of a worldview that is appealing to most of us at 20 but decreasingly thereafter. Everybody fucking knows Thomas Jefferson owned slaves; what are you adding to any conversation that involves him in any way by shouting that at people who are already perfectly well aware of it?

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cjmcnamara
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dunno about ed here but i forbid "problematic" in student papers since it's just a dressed-up version of "bad" with maybe even less real honest-to-goodness content
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the whole of the law

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a similar argument: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” 

But when Obama was president the relevant biblical passage wasn’t Romans 13:1, it was Acts 5:29. The goalposts have moved — and when there’s a another Democratic president and/or Congress, they’ll move again. Conservative Christians would never have countenanced electing a president who has been divorced — until Reagan came along. When Bill Clinton was president, character in the occupant of the Oval Office was everything; now it’s nothing, or, really, less than nothing. 

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them. The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning. Or summarize a Sunday-school story that they clearly don’t understand, as when they compare Trump to King David because both sinned without even noticing that David’s penitence was even more extravagant than his sins while Trump doesn’t think he needs to repent of anything. But hey, as a Trump supporter once wrote to me: “Now we are fused with him.” 

And that’s it, that’s the law, that’s the whole of the law

But I think Jeff Sessions actually knows that the position he and Sanders articulate is inadequate. In his statement he lets slip one dangerous word: “I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws. If we have them, then they should be enforced.” 

Ah, you shouldn’t have let that word sneak in there, Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.  It might lead people to ask questions, to wit: 

Start going down this road and you could end up sitting at your kitchen table trying to parse the way Martin Luther King Jr. distinguishes just and unjust laws in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” And we wouldn’t want that, would we? Better simply to say “Romans 13:1 says it, I believe it, and that settles it” — at least until the Democrats get back in power. 

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cjmcnamara
3 days ago
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zing
betajames
3 days ago
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Michigan
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U. of Chicago Will No Longer Require ACT/SAT

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The change makes Chicago the most selective university to stop requiring applicants to submit scores from one of the tests.
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cjmcnamara
3 days ago
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on the one hand, removing a barrier; on the other, inviting new ways of gaming admissions by the well-connected and well-off. i don't envy admissions committees, who need to recruit talent that doesn't turn into jared kushner.
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