Saturday, September 08, 2007

Some Personal Thoughts on Rush

Like most fans of my generation, I really came to know them after the release of Permanent Waves, although I much prefer the songs "Natural Science" and "Entre Nous" to the radio favorites "The Spirit of Radio" and "Freewill". I have enjoyed attending their shows and listening, with varying levels of attentiveness, over the years, to the changes in style and substance through which the band has gone. I was very pleased to hear them include "Under the Wheels" on the set list of the last show I attended, in Chicago in 2003 (?), and a live version of "The Analog Kid" on their Different Stages live triple disc set they released during their break-up/hiatus following the deaths of Neil Peart's wife and daughter within months of each other.

Listening now to certain songs, "Time Stand Still", "Witch Hunt", "The Camera Eye" among them, I have much different reactions than I had when I first heard them. Especially the first I connect with as I grow older and identify with much more personally than their more political songs. On the other hand, "Witch Hunt" is even more timely now than when it was released in 1980. As much of Rush was a musical accompaniment to my first semester of my sophomore year in college, and also my second semester of my junior year, which included intense study of foreign affairs and political philosophy, I can't help but associate even their non-political songs with my own growing understanding of certain political realities, and the conclusions I drew from certain facts. I was fortunate in these instances to have professors who were both personally supportive and intellectually stimulating to insist that I do the best work I could. I responded to their constructive criticism much better than at any time in my history in higher education precisely because they understood what I was trying to do, and while not always agreeing with my conclusions insisted that I could do better than I was, even while that was quite better than most of my contemporaries (as it was, I received the award for Outstanding Political Science Student, a book award, when I graduated from college; the book, a study of the benficial effects of economic sanctions in the conduct of foreign policy, is both long lost and eminently forgetable).

So it is with a certain urgency and earnest hope that I attend this evening's show in Tinley Park. As with my time in college, I believe that we are at a crucial juncture in our country's life and history, with much riding in the balance. I believe there is a confluence of social, cultural, and political forces that are not being heeded by the political class, attuned as they are to a mostly inside-the-beltway conventional wisdom that is slightly conservative and dismissive of the vulgar hordes who demand actual constructive policies on the part of government. Rush's songs are a peculiar element, both welcome and foreign (being Canadian).

I do not wish to overplay the political siginificance of the band. At heart, they are a bunch of very hard working musicians, invovled mostly in making sure their music is the best it can be. They do not take themselves very seriously at all, which is a welcome refuge from the all-too-serious performers from David Bowie to Bono. As a band, they express this best by continuing to play a nine minute intrumental with the odd title "La Villa Strangiato", long after conventional wisdom and prudence would dictate its retirement. The fans, of course, love it. Here it is, from a 1979 show:

Is He In, Out, Going, Leaving - The Travails of Larry Craig

While I think Craig's current troubles are more tragedy than anything else, I do not necessarily think it wise to announce one is resigning from the United States Senate, then decide, "maybe not so much". On the one hand, neither Craig nor his family will benefit from his continuance in the public eye as long as questions regarding his sexuality remain a matter of public debate. While it would be nice to believe, were we even somewhat utopian, that Craig's adventures in bathroom diplomacy might possibly lead to a discussion over the continued Republican bigotry towards gays and lesbians (I still marvel at the so-called "Log Cabin Republicans"; their closet is so big they apparently have contructed a small dwelling for themselves) and the damage being closeted by a homo-hating society can do to individuals and their families. Alas, most of the discussion will be prurient, led not by thoughtful, caring people, but by Jay Leno and David Letterman. It would be much better to allow Sen. Craig (whether or not he will be "former Senator" I cannot tell at this point) to deal with the subject of his sexuality on his own, away from the prying eyes and stupid comments of those who will milk this for far more laughs than it is worth.

Of course, there is the not-very-small matter of Sen. David Vitter's much more illegal activities with a Washington, DC escort service, and the deafening silence from the Republican Party on Vitter's no less heinous violation of his marriage vows and much more serious violations of the law by engaging the services of a prostitute (as opposed to merely trolling for anonymous sex in a bathroom). I suppose we wait in vain for some kind of compensating hue and cry for his rapid departure.

Sen. Craig does neither himself, his family, nor his party any favors by deciding, for whatever reasons, to stay put. While it might be nice in that it might possibly contribute to a healthy discussion of the social acceptance of sexual minorities, it will mostly be the reserve of bad comedians and even worse bigoted moralizers. Thoughtful commentary will most likely be lost in the sound and fury.

So Much For A Break

It wasn't much of a break, but my need for it subsided as I began to feel better by mid-week. When I further realized that I was, without either intent or desire, the center of several squalls if not storms at different places, I thought I should at least add my cent-and-a-third (especially as I was being maligned quite a bit). While I suppose I can imagine the title of one post was offensive to some, as they resolutely refused to get the point of that post (pro-lifers don't care all that much about real life, just fetal existence), I take their mockery and derision in stride. On the other hand, those who continue to insist that I am not a Christian, do not read the Bible in an acceptable fashion, and are a danger to others because of my alleged incoherence seem all too willing to continue a fight I really, really would prefer was over. For my part it is.

My hope over the ensuing days and weeks is to emerge from a bit of a critical phase to some tentative contructive statements, akin to my statements on the Bible. How successful these might be all depends, as always, on my energy, enthusiasm, and whatever might be going on in the larger world.

Which reminds me. This coming Tuesday, six years to the day anniversary of the attacks by al Qaeda upon the United States, is being promoted as, I have heard over and over, "Patriot Day". Perhaps this is my own churlishness, but I can't think of something less patriotic than remembering a day when our vaunted self-defense and intelligence operations failed to prevent the catastrophic deaths of thousands in New York, Washington, and a field in central Pennsylvania. Again, though, that's just me.

Finally, this week has seen the passing of, among others of thousands whose lives were of less note, Luciano Pavoratti and the Rev. Dr. D. James Kennedy. The former was a gifted artist; the latter a Jesuitical, Pharisaical danger to the life and health of both our religious and civil polity. The former contributed to the general wealth of humanity. The latter, by granting a "Christian Statesman" award to Tom DeLay, showed a remarkable lack of judgment. One will be missed. The other, not so much.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Lester Bangs and the Ideology of Rock

ALong with the bio of Gladstone, I have also been perusing the collection of Lester Bangs' writings, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by fellow critic Greil Marcus. It has been an interesting, enlightening read. On the one hand, I was surprised, and pleased, to read his generally favorable review of Bob Seger's Stranger In Town LP, one of my own personal favorites. I was also surprised and pleased to read a very favorable review of a Barry White concert he attended. His asides against Led Zepelin were more than welcome.

On the other hand, Bangs has a very rigid view that almost, but not quite, renders much of his work a bit unreadable for me. He insists that the best rock and roll is formulaic, simple to the point of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time, centering either on the hormonal demands of adolescent boys, either sexual or socio-political. This viewpoint led him, in a fit of pique, to describe the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer LP Brain Salad Surgery as a "war crime". Pompous, yes. Overbearing at times, it most certainly is. I is not on a scale with the Soviet massacre of Polish military and civilian leadership in 1939 or the genocide in Bosnia. Like all ideologues (including some who visit here from time to time), he just wants to make sure that all that is fits in to the categories of his own experience and understanding. Thus, if a band, such as ELP, wants to insist that it is doing rock and roll even as it loses a full-time guitar player, writes arrangements of classical music, and composes multi-part suites built around science fiction themes, said pieces extending in concert to well over a half-hour, this is somehow not just wrong, but offensive in some moral way.

The problem he finds in his review of Seger's album is simple - he thinks the music doesn't match the intent of the lyrics. The lyrics he interprets as concerning themselves with issues of alienation. The music is straight-ahead rock and roll, aided and abetted most admirably by the rhythm section from Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. My complaint with the album concerns the muddy production. The opening track, "Hollywood Nights", a true ballad, of a young man who loses his innocence in the Babylon on the Pacific suffers from a lack of clarity in the mix; I'm not sure what the source of this muddle is, because the previous LP, Night Moves, is a textbook case of precise production values. In other words, he wishes that Bob Seger wasn't Bob Seger. He wishes ELP weren't at all, but at least if it were, he wishes it weren't ELP. He wants The Clash to do something different, to echo their best moments, and expound upon them, but only at the expense of their own ideas of who they should be.

Bangs' most notorious piece of criticism was his declaration that Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed's contractual obligation LP that consists of roughly a half-hour of electronic noise, is transcendent - the first true rock masterwork. he problem is that it was nothing of the kind; Bangs' adherence to a rigid ideology led him to ignore the fact that Reed's joke upon his record company and insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that it was a serious piece of music.

Alas, it is not. This should be an object lesson to all those who insist that the world conform to their ideologies and prejudices, rather than accepting the world on its own terms. In other words, I would much prefer to accept the fact that some bands and performers are who they are, rather than who I might want them to be. I can accept the Bruce Springsteen is a gifted musician and lyricist while not being a fan. I can appreciate the reasons for Led Zepelin's popularity without believing they exhibit any musical virtues whatsoever (just because I believe in allowing musical groups to be who and what they are does not mean I can't insist that some are simply not worth listening to).

Bangs' was an important voice, but an unfortunately limited one. I do hope there might come a time when his many virtues can be understood with a more careful acceptance of his failings as well.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On Humility

I have given careful thought over the past 24 hours concerning my use of Galatians yesterday, and specifically the contrast between an appearance of arraogance and my seeming special pleading for my own gentleness and humility in particular. I thought it only fair that I relate how my thoughts have gone, if for no other reason than clarification.

Most people think of "humility" as denying any particularly special attributes to oneself, a refusal to take oneself as of more worth or value than others. I believe, on the other hand that part of the complex of virtues that make up humility is honesty. I do believe that false humility is to disclaim any of the gifts one has been granted by God, good genes, or hard work. It would be foolish of me to say that I am not self-confident enough to put forward my own views as correct. Were this not so, I would fold this blog and ride off in to the sunset. My conceit comes from a self-awareness (rather than self-regard) that understands not only its own breadth, but how far it has to go. I accept the notion that wisdom is the understanding that what we do not know is infinite. My goal is to move down that road as far as my own gifts and talents and hard work take me, to be sure. I also recognize that I can be wrong as much as I am right. If I were to fall victim to popular ideas of humility, however, all of this would be seen as sinful bragging and self-regard. Rather, it is simple honesty.

Along with honesty, humility also concerns itself with the regard for the feelings of others. This is usually understood as self-abnegation rather than actual concern for others. I have nothing but concern for the feelings of others; I also think it is necessary to address others as honestly as I can. If in so doing, those others interpret it as arrogance, nothing I can say would disabuse of them of such an idea, so I can only do what I do the way I do it, and for those who welcome it, I am grateful. Were I to seek the approbation of everyone, I would be a successful politician, rather than what I am.

For the most part, I believe that we understand humility erroneously if we understand it to be "pooh-poohing" any acclaim we might achieve through our own efforts, plus the luck that accompanies any success we might achieve. Accept it in good humor, but don't allow the acclaim to set us off track, thinking that the acclaim is the end to which we are working. That's the difference, I guess. Some people work for applause lines. Others work, get applause, and keep right on working. The former are not humble, the latter are. I count myself as the latter. Only my own humility prevents me from talking about how humble I am. . .

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

To Craig

In comments on a post below, Craig writes:
[I]f you see no use for gentleness, respect, and hope, then nothing anyone could say will make a difference.

As I though I made clear, I have hope. I show respect for those who have earned it. My sense of gentleness is greatly tested of late and I see no reason for indulging in supine indulgence for the sake of comity.

As a country, we are currently in a fight for the very heart of what it means to be America and Americans. I do not think that it is time to indulge in a false meekness to prove something to others about the reality of our Christian faith. On the contrary, I believe that we must speak out as forcefully as possible on the rightness of our position, and not be caught up in a cycle of false humility. I say this with all the due clauses concerning the contingency of all judgments and the limited nature of all human endeavors. Simply because I accept these as truisms does not mean that I have nowhere to stand. On the contrary, I stand upon the history of Christians who ahve gone before me who refused to back down in the face of challenges to the faith, and upon the Constitution of the United States that currently lies in tatters at the feet of the Bush Administration. I believe it is long past time to indulge in acquiescence to others. Gentle I most assuredly am, but I am also conceited, and self-assured, enough to insist that I am right and that now is the time for action. Should you believe otherwise, that is all well and good, but, again, I have no deisre to deal with those who insist I live their lives to be able to call myself a Christian.

On the Bible, One Final Time

The following is a general statement of my approach to Scripture. If it isn't satisfactory, my only response is - tough.

I have been schooled, or at least attempted to be schooled, in the use of Scripture, recently, and I thought it only fair that I lay out, once for all, my views on Scripture. This will be a nice way for me, in the future, to deal with such questions. All I need do is refer interested or querulous persons here. If they still don't like it, there is always the option of going elsewhere.

First, I believe that the Bible is not the wellspring of the Christian faith, but rather the testimony of those who faithfully recorded what they profess to be acts of God. As such, the canon of Scripture is a guide, a resource, rather than the final word on any number of subjects. It is formative, but not necessarily normative, for Christian faith and life. It contains much to commend itself, but also much that any thoughtful person should at least question. Phyllis Trible,a feminist Scripture scholar, wrote a number of years ago Texts of Terror, which outlined several Biblical texts that are examples of holy-sanctioned violence against women. Her hermeneutic of suspicion is both welcome and an example of serious wrestling with the Bible. Others may wrestle with other sections, such as African-Americans with the endorsements of slavery, or pacifists with the Divine call to arms in much of the Old Testament. We cannot ignore, or write or read out, those portions of the Bible we find lacking in ethical or moral character. We have to accept them as part of the Bible, and at the same time be willing to insist they are not, or cannot, be normative for contemporary Christians.

I find it fascinating that I was recently told that only a literal reading of the Bible is acceptable, and as it is hradly conducive to understanding our contemporary life, should be discarded. I was told this by someone who was not a Christian. At the same time, Neil comes here, throws Bible quotes around willy-nilly, claiming that doing so proves one or another point he is trying to make. Such is, to me, a misuse or misunderstanding of the Bible and its uses, and in both cases insists for its promotion on what I tend to think of as magical thinking. In both cases, there is the assumption that something inside Scripture tends to commend it to us. For me, however, the Bible is authoritative only because the Church commends it to us as a general guide rather than because there is some property within the letters of the page that provide spiritual sustenance. I accept the idea that what inspiration Scripture provides comes from God in the Person of the Holy Spirit, but even that is qualified to the point that I believe God gave us brains and minds to wrestle, Jacob-like, with the God who loves us. If God minded, we would be different creatures. If God wanted abject obeisance, without question, without failure, without the possibility of growth, creation would have ceased with the angels.

My Scriptural guides for my own faith are, in general, the Hebrew prophets and certain lines of St. Paul. Specifically, I like Micah's declaration of LORD's requirements - to love kindness, pursue justice, and walk humbly with God. I also accept what St. Paul called "the fruits of the Spirit" - "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23, REB) I see nothing here that warrants Neil's insistence that we come to some sort of artificial agreement on "sound doctrine". Indeed, I find it silly to insist on such a thing, because the past two millennia of Christian history have been an uniterrupted argument on what makes up Christian doctrine, with mutual anathemas and excommunications, and the splintering of the Body of Christ on issues of such little worth as to appear nonsensical to many. The overriding concern, to me, of the teachings of Jesus and the demands of Christian faith, is of mutual support in the work of loving and working in the world. "Salvation" as a metaphysical or eschatological concept is the work of God, achieved by Jesus on the cross. The final allocation of this decision is God's alone, and I leave the judging of such finality to that time and place, if such there will be. In the meantime, between the times as it is known (the time of Jesus and the final eschatological time-that-is-no-time), we are to live and love together for the sake of a world broken and hurting. To that end, our lives should be those of dedicated service to others on the model of Jesus, willing to go to the farthest extreme in the pursuit of healing and deliverance.

I do not believe that it is necessary to start and end all conversations with a variety of Bible verses. I do believe that, should a verse be pertinent, it is necessary to employ it, as long as qualifications, a relationship to some wider context is provided, and the satisfaction that it is only the beginning of Wisdom, rather than a syllogism in some argument. The Bible is a wealth for those who desire to seek a deeper understanding; it is also troubling, confounding, not infrequently self-contradictory and exasperating - but this does not render it useless if one approaches it in faith, and with the full knowledge of its short-comings clearly in mind.

As a note to those who might note a bit of hypocrisy in quoting Galatians even as I announce that I have little patience for certain activities that cause emotional turmoil and exasperation. I can only answer these critics by stating that I am on my way to perfection; I haven't reached it yet.

No More Phony Debates

On Saturday morning, I perused, for the first time in fifteen years, the opening pages of Carl Becker's classic study The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. Originally a series of lectures given to the Yale Law School in 1931, Becker's is an early study in the history of ideas of what has come to be pretty standard understanding of what has since been called "historicism" - the practice of understanding a thinker's whole set of ideas within their own time and against the backdrop of the assumptions and givens of a particular period in history. He specifically addressed the then-widespread idea that the 18th century philosophes were committed to an agnostic, non-theological worldview, with no hint of any Christian undertones. He does so by showing how most of them actually employed certain elements of Christian eschatology as both the background and hope for eventual human progress and social development.

In the opening chapter, Becker demonstrates the reality of incommensurability not just between thinkers past and present, but between contemporaries whose assumptions and thought vary widely. He does so by offering the not-surprising view that:
[i]t often distresses me to find that an intimate friend of mine rejects one or other of these beliefs, even after I have laid before him all the relevant facts and have repeatedly retraced for his benefit the logical steps that out to convince a reasonable mind. It may happen . . . that he cannot refute my argument. No matter. Convinced against his will, he is of the same opinion still; and I realize at last that his mind is, unfortunately, not entirely open. Some perverse emotion, some deep-seated prejudice or unexamined preconception blinds him to the truth.(p.1)

Becker then moves on from the intramural quarrels of academe to discussion with, as his given examples, "politicians or preachers".
The argument soon falters for want of agreement. Facts which they accept as relevant we question or regard as negligible. Processes of reasoning which bring conviction to us they dismiss with perverse and casual leveity as academic. Before the night is well begun the discussion peters out. We see that it is useless to go on because their thought is vitiated, not merely on the surface by prejudices peculiar to tehm as individuals, but fundamentally by unconscious preconceptions that are common to all men of their profession.(p.2)

Becker then makes a third move, more salient to his general thesis, by offering the idea that, while these various debate-partners might disagree on certain issues, all might be agreed that it would be fascinating to sit and listen to some genius from history. He offers two examples: St. Thomas on natural law, and Machiavelli on the necessity for collective security and supranational organization as embodied in the promise of the then League of Nations. After quoting at length from the former's Summa Theologica and the latter's De monarchia, Becker comes to the bewildering conclusion, maybe not so much, eh?

Lightbulbs went off in my head (usually a dark and dismal place), and I realized the impasse at which I had arrived vis-a-vis recent debates and discussions here at my little, unpretentious blog. While I enjoy debate and discussion as much as the next person, I have grown tired of having to explain, over and over again, the same point. I thought that it was lack of clarity on my part. Or perhaps it was purposeful ignorance on the part of the person attempting to debate. In fact, we inhabit wholly different existential and intellectual universes, and my points are meaningless in the same way that St. Thomas' and Machiavelli's arguments are nonsensical to a contemporary person of letters - while we can follow the train of thought clearly enough (both are models of simplicity and clarity; the modern penchant for opacity had not yet entered intellectual discourse), we simply do not share the same assumptions or outlook on life, what Becker calls as the title of his first chapter, "Climates of Opinion". This is not only fair, but acceptable. THe problem, however, is that we end up running rhetorical circles around one another precisely because we each inhabit different worlds. I for one refuse to enteratin the acceptability of those other worlds, and they, for reasons of their own, refuse to accept my own. Fair enough. To save us all aggravation, I think it best that such debates should cease.

I am willing to debate and discuss with anyone who is willing to make the move to understand what it is I say here on its own terms. I refuse to deal with those who say, in a variety of ways, that what I say, think, and believe is nonsensical, erroneous, self-contradictory, or confusing. This blog is nothing more and nothing less than an attempt by me to communicate my own struggles with both faith and politics. I am not attempting to teach anyone anything; I am merely stating my own views, and as I represent no one but myself, should be taken with as little salt as pssible. I am as likely to change my mind within a few days or weeks as I am to follow one path or another.

I am doing this to save us all aggravation. Anyone is welcome to come here, obviously, and post whatever comments they feel moved to make. No one should believe for one moment, however, that I feel obliged to either "rebut" or "debate" issues when it becomes clear to me that the person inviting such discussion either doesn't understand me, or refuses to understand me. I also have little patience any longer for ad hominem remarks, directed either at me or at other commenters. Please restrain yourselves in the future.

Am I being intolerant? Why, yes, I believe I am. That is only fair, because I am not a very tolerant person. I have limited resources of patience, time, energy, and thought, and am attempting to actually move forward (or at least move) and cannot take the time to repeat myself for those who simply refuse to get it. If that isn't acceptable, feel free to go elsewhere.

We Interrupt This Break For A Quick Bulletin

My computer is in ths shop, and am borrowing my wife's. It's the same brand, but her set-up and browser are different, and it feels, well, different. I'll be glad to either get mine back or get a new one ASAP, as she needs hers in her office much more than I need it here at the house. I have felt cut-off from the rest of the word a bit too much recently, however, so I decided to check things out (especially as Larry Craig has decided to remain a thorn in the Republicans' foot for a while). It seems the conversation has been going on without me, which is wonderful, but I still feel it necessary to jump in with just a few things here.

First, I am enjoying re-reading, for the first time in years, Roy Jenkins' biography of William Gladstone. After seeing Democracy Lover use the word "eleemosynary" recently, I was moved to put aside Volf and dabble in the less troubling waters of 19th century British political history via Gladstone. Jenkins' writing style is witty, but more than occassionally dense and flowing rather than terse and to the point. He is a bad influence on me, in other words . . .

Much of my funk over the weekend was, I realized, that I was not only exhausted, but also had come down with a bit of a bug. Over the past several days I have felt much better, with much more energy, than on Friday, Saturday, or even Sunday.

Finally, before we turn to a more specific post, can anyone please tell me why, here in northern Illinois, it feels like July? Please, no global warming jokes or jibes; I am just honestly tired of this weather, that's all. Of course, after three weeks of rain, and flooding, you might think I would be grateful for some sun, but I am one of those who is just never satisfied I guess . . .

Virtual Tin Cup

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