Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Smart, Rich, White Guy Thinks Other Smart, Rich White Guys Suck

No, not me.

Thanks to Tbogg and Roy Edroso, I took Charles Murray's little quiz to find out whether I was a Real American or some horrid elitist.

I scored a 58. According to The Murray Scale, I am, and I cut&paste, "A first- generation middle-class person with working-class parents and average television and moviegoing habits.
Range: 42–100. Typical: 66."

What's amusing about this, of course, is how meaningless it is. As a commenter at alicublog said, Facebook polls are more scientific. "Have you ever walked on a factory floor?" Seriously? Good gravy. . .

I could come up with my own quiz, and pretty much score everyone but me either total dorks or raving geniuses.

Considering Murray's pedigree and cv, the idea that he knew who Jimmie Johnson was without needing to look it up on Wikipedia is ludicrous. Of course, then he had to look up NASCAR . . .

At some point, when will folks wise up and understand our country isn't in trouble because some people think they're smarter than everyone else? Our country is screwed up because a bunch of people thought they were smarter than everyone else, but they proved to be so catastrophically wrong they nearly destroyed the planet. And Charles Murray is among them, hook, line, and stinker.


The front page link to a column by political reporter Melinda Henneberger asks the question, "Do 'family values' still matter?". The title of the piece, appearing in today's on-line edition of The Washington Post is declarative rather than interrogative, yet amounts to the same thing: "‘Family values’ still matter — when it’s the other party’s indiscretions".

I've been actively and intently following American politics for over a quarter century, and of all the meaningless phrases tossed about, this more than any other makes me want to scream. Never defined, beyond vague pledges of fealty to fidelity and what some consider "traditions" related to the institution - with which no one, of whom I'm aware, would argue - the phrase was once repeated so often that I began to wonder if I was the one who was dim. After all, shouldn't a phrase that is on so many lips, a critical attack upon one's political opponents, be clear as day?

Obviously, the phrase is meaningless. It is employed for no reason than to contrast the alleged moral failings of one's political opponents. After all, if they neither practice nor support "family values", they are not to be trusted with political power.

Setting to one side the definition of "family", I think "value" should be examined a bit. "Value" is a word that is relational. We only know what we value when we compare it to other things we value either more or less. Whether these things are moral precepts and ethical perspectives, material goods and services provided in economic exchange, or persons in our lives, what makes them valuable is their relationship to things we value, only in different measure. Being a capitalist society, value becomes a word that, for better or worse, reduces everything to market exchange. The attitude is best summed up by a maxim I learned my freshman year in college: "Money talks. Bullshit walks." The totalitarianism of the market pushes out every other standard of the reckoning of value save the dollar value. If it doesn't have a price tag, it's worthless.

Our current disgusting political rhetoric certainly bears this out. Every discussion of the role and scope of the state in society comes down to the simple matter of cost. You want a social safety net? How much are you willing to spend? You want the largest military in the history of the planet? Pony up the pennies. A moon base? Good deal! Who pays for it?

If the argument concerning "family values" concerns itself with matters upon which no price can be set, then we run in to a problem. If fidelity is a value, yet can reckon no cost one way or another, then how can it be valued? Of course, as many a divorced man can attest, the price of adultery can, indeed, have a hefty price tag. Alimony and child support can be costly. Yet, if we reduce the matter of attentiveness to our marital responsibility to the monetary penalty levied for breaching that part of the marital contract, what, precisely, are we saying about this particular "value"? That it is only worth what the parties are willing or unwilling to risk having to pay should it be set to one side?

As regards Henneberger's column itself, she seems to be rehashing the now well-worn notion that much of the political rhetoric around "family values" is hypocritical and partisan. The examples she cites - the dueling indiscretions of Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton - demonstrate the emptiness of the moral posturing on all sides.* This may well demonstrate, even more than any detailed deconstruction of the phrase "family values" could ever do, its meaninglessness. I would heartily beg anyone who might care to please please please stop using this phrase.

*I will admit to taking some pokes at Newt's serial adultery. By and large this is because I remember all too well his singular role in the hunting of Pres. Clinton in the 1990's. I didn't care about Clinton's blow job and I don't care about what Charlie Pierce calls Gingrich's staff-banging. Is that because I don't care about matters of fidelity in marriage? I don't care about the many ways men have abused power over women, exploiting them as sexual objects to satisfy their own desires? If anyone believes either that I am insouciant about fidelity or about male dominance and the dehumanization of women, they need to read this blog from start to finish. I don't care about these matters as they relate to how I evaluate the fitness or lack of fitness any particular individual demonstrates to hold public office. It's that simple. Short version - I couldn't care less.

Friday, January 27, 2012

An Annoying Personal Interlude, With Help From Jerry Garcia, Walt Whitman, Kansas, and Katatonia

[Good and evil] exist together in their little game, each with its special place and special humors. I dig 'em both. What is life but being conscious? And good and evil are manifestations of consciousness. If you reject one, you're not getting the whole thing that's there to be had.
Jerry Garcia, 1969 interview with Michael Lydon, published in Rolling Stone magazine

So my spiritual life - which is a weird way of saying "my life" - suddenly seemed, at least to me, a bit of thrashing nonsense. A series of contradictions without any possibility of higher synthesis. Occasionally enraged by the shallowness, the callousness, and lack of fellow-feeling I see and hear around me, I vent my frustrations by indulging in bouts where I listen to very loud, very dark music. More than simple emotional catharsis, these moments give vent to a deep appreciation for and enjoyment of the madness that lurks in all of us. For a very long time, I resisted this, thinking it somehow wrong to let the beast within take over. Yet, as Swedish Death Metal Band Katatonia sing, the darkness will indeed rise:

Sometimes, these moments verge over a line into a celebration not only of that darkness that lies within all of us, but a letting go even of the ties that bind us to God, a rage so deep and thorough it gives vent to a curse to all:

These forays to the true dark side have had me worrying about a great many things, not least of them the state of my life before God. There is, after all, St. Paul's admonition to hate evil and hold fast to what is good. This is more than just good advice; it is a good way to take spiritual inventory.

Yet, what is the evil we are to hate? Is it simple moral failing? Is it social evil? Is it both? While St. Paul does offer in multiple places examples of what he means by the word - fornicators, idolaters, drunkards, gluttons, etc. - we have the example of Jesus who, in his life and ministry risked the calumny of the religious authorities by associating precisely with some such as these. Along with being named blasphemer, he was called a drunkard and whoremonger. How do we balance what seems to be this contradiction? After all, St. Paul warns us not even to associate with ones such as these; Christ modeled a ministry precisely to those such as these.

It helps, I think, in the first instance to recognize ourselves in that list. Who among us, given enough rope, can't hang ourselves on these and so many other sins? Who among us is not, in some manner, a sexual pervert, an idolater, a drunkard? Unless we are willing and able to honestly admit our participation in some, many, even all these sins, I don't think we are really confessing our faith to the last dregs at the bottom of our lives.

At the same time, there are resources, some orthodox, some not, that are balancing this flirtation with the depths of darkness within. In the first place, I've been treading slowly but surely*, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 2, Part 1. I can't imagine a more orthodox theologian to be digesting. Having read several of the volumes before, I am enjoying this particular read as he is, in the section in which I am currently sunk, both attacking what he called "natural theology" and dismissing apologetics. The clarity of his vision of the task of theology, and from it the deep faith that cuts through meat and sinew to the bone of human overconfidence in our own ability to grasp what can only be given, gives me a peace of mind, as well as opening up new ways of thinking through various Scriptural passages and injunctions, that is profoundly settling.

A couple nights ago, on a bit of a whim, I searched and found, in its entirety, Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself". It has been decades since I read it in its entirety. I sat at my computer, transfixed by the swirl of images, the shifting perspectives, the warmth and humanity and deep, abiding love Whitman expresses. I also chastised myself for getting caught up in the pantheistic, Romantic bungle of warmed-over saccharine sentimentality that is also a good way to describe the poem. I think both views have merit, yet neither capture Whitman's attempt. In my estimation, nothing more or less than expressing a kind of American creed was his aim. In the process, he offered a template for later writers as diverse as Thomas Pynchon and Phillip K. Dick to emulate in very different ways.

Reading through the poem this morning as I prepared myself for writing this post, I came across the following, stanza 41:
I am he bringing help for the sick as they pant on their backs,
And for strong upright men I bring yet more needed help.

I heard what was said of the universe,
Heard it and heard it of several thousand years;
It is middling well as far as it goes--but is that all?

Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah,
Lithographing Kronos, Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson,
Buying drafts of Osiris, Isis, Belus, Brahma, Buddha,
In my portfolio placing Manito loose, Allah on a leaf, the crucifix
With Odin and the hideous-faced Mexitli and every idol and image,
Taking them all for what they are worth and not a cent more,
Admitting they were alive and did the work of their days,
(They bore mites as for unfledg'd birds who have now to rise and fly
and sing for themselves,)
Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself,
bestowing them freely on each man and woman I see,
Discovering as much or more in a framer framing a house,
Putting higher claims for him there with his roll'd-up sleeves
driving the mallet and chisel,
Not objecting to special revelations, considering a curl of smoke or
a hair on the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation,
Lads ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes no less to me
than the gods of the antique wars,
Minding their voices peal through the crash of destruction,
Their brawny limbs passing safe over charr'd laths, their white
foreheads whole and unhurt out of the flames;
By the mechanic's wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for
every person born,
Three scythes at harvest whizzing in a row from three lusty angels
with shirts bagg'd out at their waists,
The snag-tooth'd hostler with red hair redeeming sins past and to come,
Selling all he possesses, traveling on foot to fee lawyers for his
brother and sit by him while he is tried for forgery;
What was strewn in the amplest strewing the square rod about me, and
not filling the square rod then,
The bull and the bug never worshipp'd half enough,
Dung and dirt more admirable than was dream'd,
The supernatural of no account, myself waiting my time to be one of
the supremes,
The day getting ready for me when I shall do as much good as the
best, and be as prodigious;
By my life-lumps! becoming already a creator,
Putting myself here and now to the ambush'd womb of the shadows.(emphasis added)

The highlighted section immediately put me in mind of a long-time favorite song of mine, with its outro verse including the words, "I sang this song a hundred, maybe a thousand years ago. No one ever listens. I just play and then I go."

In many ways as archetypically American as Whitman, Kansas epitomizes the attempt to take in everything, stir it up, and make something that both leaves the different parts clear and unchanged, yet somehow makes the end result even greater than that combination as it becomes a whole, new thing.

The same can be said of The Grateful Dead, even more so. The quote from Garcia that serves as the epigram to this post used to bother me. Whether or not I "get" it in a visceral, clear way, I have no way of judging and certainly wouldn't claim as my own. On the other hand, I feel no hesitation in endorsing it as a program we, Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu, agnostic/atheist, fundamentalist or liberal, evangelical or Orthodox, can get behind.

At the end of the day, in prayerful consideration of our own sinful nature, always in need of the grace and mercy that flows from the cross and empty tomb to all creation, the differences we so grandly pronounce between good and evil are far less then we might think. Which is why, I think, one can weep with those who suffer, become enraged at the mass death around us, yet also celebrate the simple miracle of a child's laugh, become entranced by the veins on a leaf, allow oneself to fall in to the arms and body of the one you love with abandon. All of it is part of God's creation, all of it is in dire need of redemption. We cannot, I believe, fully grasp this, unless we are willing to let the wolf out of its cage to roam free, and see in its blood-flecked muzzle our faces.

*One reason for "slowly" is the tendency of Barth to write paragraphs, in extremely small type, that wander over two and more pages. That and the thoroughness, exactitude, and specificity of his writing make it important to read carefully in order to take in as much as possible.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Clarifying A Couple Points

OK, so I ran ahead of the available evidence, stating as fact what instead is merely an interpretation of the correlation of a couple events - the SEAL raid in Somalia that rescued a couple American aid workers being held hostage there; the State of the Union message delivered by Pres. Obama on Tuesday night. I think my backtracking in the comments on my previous post should be clear enough. The disgust I was feeling at what I felt was the crass exploitation of our military for cheap, short-term, partisan political advantage by the President led me to state that feeling as fact.

Let me state for the record I still feel that way. Let me also state for the record there is no way to disprove the statement, rendering it, at the very least, not perhaps unintelligible, but certainly something that, prudence always being better than its opposite, should be a caution as we move forward. I know that there is no evidence, and none should be forthcoming, supporting or disproving the statement. It is, nothing more or less, than my own opinion.

How, one might ask, could I come to such a hyper-cynical conclusion? I can't imagine (pp. 606-607 of linked book).
While Kissinger was being feted as the peacemaker, Nixon and Colson were having frantic conversations with Sidlinger. The pollster, who made his reputation as an analyst of economic issues, had been among the first to measure accurately the extent of Nixon's strength among Democratic working-class voters. Sindlinger had predicted to Colson that Nixon would win at least seventeen million votes from that group. "Nixon had the hardhat labor members who figured that was a tough guy who could handle Congress and all the other crooks," Sindlinger says. "I figured Nixon was a smart crook."

Over the summer and fall of 1972, Sindlinger was in close contact with Colson and Colson's deputy, Richard Howard. Early on the morning of October 26, Colson telephoned Sindlinger about the Kissinger press conference, which Sindlinger watched. "Peace is at hand" stunned him. "I grabbed the telephone and called Chuck. I was angry. 'You've just elected McGovern. My God. There are seventeen million Democrats who will vote for Nixon because he's a crook and he's tough. All the polls have Nixon so far ahead that these fellows will now vote straight Democratic.'" Twenty minutes later, Colson called back put Nixon on the line. "Chuck says we made a mistake." "Made a mistake?" Sindlinger told the President. "You've lost the election." The pollster went through his reasoning, emphasizing that the hardhats would no longer feel the need to vote for Nixon. Then he asked Nixon directly: "Do you have an agreement? Is peace at hand?" Nixon said no and Sindlinger urged him to "let it hang. McGovern would never figure out what's going on."

An hour later, Nixon telephoned again. "He asked me," Sindlinger says, "what would be the public reaction if we bombed Hanoi?" Sindlinger promised to research the issue. Before the end of the day, there was at least one more telephone call from the President. Singlinger concluded that there were problems between Kissinger and Nixon. Nixon had somehow conveyed that the concept of a settlement was "Kissinger's idea,," and there was a curious moment during one of their talks when Nixon asked how Kissinger's popularity compared with his. "I said,'You're almost equal,'" Sindlinger remembers, "He gulped."

The excitement over Kissinger's pronouncement was reflected in the press. On October 27, in a column titled "The End of the Tunnel", James Reston wrote, "It has been a long time since Washington has heard such a candid and even brilliant explanation of an intricate political problem as Henry Kissinger gave to the press on the peace negotiations." Reston would wrte two columns that week on the "Kissinger compromise," without raising any questions about Nixon's two cables to Hanoi, as made public by North Vietnam, in which he pronounced the negotiations complete. The serious allegations broadcast by Hanoi were effaced, and North Vietnam's account of Nixon's perfidy was treated as Communist propaganda. Kissinger's persuasiveness had made Hanoi's notion that it was the United States which was engaged in wholesale distortion seem impossible. The Los Angeles Times breathlessly described Kissinger's announcement as a "dramatic negotiating breakthrough," although Kissinger was really describing a negatiating breakdown. Many other key issues were also obscured. No reporter saw fit to ask Kissinger to elaborate on what he meant when he acknowledged that the agreement called for "the existing authorities with respect to both internal and external policies [to] remain in office. . ." Kissinger did not tell the journalists the essence of the bargain: that the Thieu regime would have to share political and legal authority with the PRG. That issue would remain fuzzy - deliberately so - for the next three months.

Kissinger also managed to obscure the fact that the United States was seeking to repoen the negotiations after having reached a final agreement with the North Vietnamese. He did this by telling the journalists that there had been a "misunderstanding" on Hanoi's part: "It was, however, always clear, at least to us . . . that obviously we could not sign an agreement in which details remained to be worked out simply because in good faith we had said we would make an effort to conclude it by a certain date." Nixon and Kissinger had done much more than commit themselves to a "good faith" effort to sign by October 31; they had reassured Hanoi in two cables that they would do so. Hanoi's leaders were now being told that the Nixon Administration reserved the unilateral right to reopen the negotiations. They also were being told that it was their "misunderstandings," and not Kissinger's ambitions, Nixon's treachery, and Nguyen Van Thieu's categorical opposition, that had create the difficulties.
A couple points to clarify some of the things in Hersh's narrative. Kissinger went first to Paris then to Hanoi, to meet with his North Vietnamese counterparts in a sincere effort to conclude an agreement ahead of the November, 1972 Presidential elections. Nixon, meanwhile, was wary of what the Democrats might do should such an eleventh-hour settlement be reached. Kissinger's stock in the Nixon White House had been in steady decline for a while; he was negotiating the end to what was then America's longest war without the imprimatur of the President of the United States who was, in fact, trying to undermine him at every turn. Ultimately, he would succeed; Kissinger, however, was a partner in his own demise not least by his near-constant courting of the Washington press corps that, for some reason, took his words at face value.

In an interview with Hersh, a former aide to North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho, Nguyen Co Thach, spoke of the Washington collapse over what was, for them, a preliminary agreement only being presented as a fait accompli by Kissinger. On p. 602, he is quoted as follows: "We knew that they would only like to have this understanding to move smoothly through the elections, and not to sign a peace agreement," he said. "They would like to have it setlled but not signed, so they can say there is no more to the Vietnam War. . . . They would like to change it after the election."

When the North Vietnamese realized what was going on, Radio Hanoi released the full text of the agreement, along with the accompanying diplomatic cables - American and North Vietnamese - which Nixon used as a casus belli for the single largest bombing campaign up to that time: the so-called "Christmas Bombings" of North Vietnam. The two Vietnams had already received more tonnage than all fronts in WWII, including the atomic bombing of Japan. The Christmas Bombings would increase that total by close to fifty percent.

So forgive me for even imagining a President might be so crass as to order the military to rescue some Americans in order to make himself look good. An American President undermining negotiations undertaken in his own name out of the multiple paranoias directed at his staff, the press, the Democratic candidate, the American people, and the fear that an end to the Vietnam War might lose him the election sounds like the stuff of way too many movies, doesn't it.

The SEALS Aren't Props

I've been more the occasionally amused but largely apathetic spectator of recent political events. Other than occasional notes on Charlie Pierce columns in Esquire that attempt some humor, I haven't been this blase about a looming Presidential election in many years. On the one hand are the Republican rivals, currently involved in a primary campaign the singular goal of which seems to be to out-crazy one another, invoking the name of the incumbent President without any reference to anything he's actually done, or not done. Because I do not allow my children to hear lies, I am keeping them from the Republican primary campaign as much as possible. If they want fantasy, I push Tolkien's books in to their hands.

On the other hand, there's our incumbent. He needs to answer many questions. He needs to be challenged, substantively, on indefinite detention and the elimination of habeas corpus; on a policy of assassinating American citizens; on the use of UAVs in domestic policing activities; on the too-small stimulus and and monetary policy that seems more thrashing than rational; on participation in the Libyan Civil War, on-going combat operations in Pakistan, the nature of our military presence in Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines; on our opening to Burma. I could go on, but you get the idea. Presidential campaigns rarely concern themselves with the minutiae of actual governance. I understand and accept that. At the very least, however, the press and Republicans could be taking him to task on these and a host of other issues. Instead, because their base is entranced by a vision of the President that bears no semblance to the man or his policies, everything else just kind of slides on by.

For example, the other night was the Constitutionally mandated State of the Union. The Constitution merely states that the President shall give a report on the State of the Union to Congress. Up until the days of television, this usually involved sending a letter to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate that was read in to the record. It has become, over the years, grand political theater. I awoke Wednesday morning to discover, to my surprise, that President Obama had outdone previous Presidents in his staging and set decorations.

Navy SEALs rescued two American hostages held in Somalia at the same time the President was lauding our military's finest and their record during his term. It has been impressive. In his first year, they stormed a pirate vessel in the Indian Ocean, rescuing some Americans held prisoner, killing some of the pirates and bringing home at least one to face trial. A trial for piracy . . . Visions of Jack Sparrow. . .

Of course, the feather in the SEALs watch-caps - a richly deserved one - is the operation that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden. Obama mentions that quite often; in his SOTU, he talked about being given the flag the team had with them on that mission. No doubt, as a patriotic American, his role as C-in-C in ordering and green-lighting that particular operation should give him enormous pride. The expansion of counter-intelligence and special operations over the past couple years, and the success of these operations (the SEALs are without a doubt the single best unit in this, or any, military), raise questions, however, not so much on questions of the wisdom of this or that op; rather they raise questions on the level of policy and practice.

Except last night. While it is nice that the SEALs did their job, as usual, effectively and successfully; while I celebrate the return of Americans held captive by bandits and thieves in a far away land; forgive me for being cynical enough to suspect the timing of this particular op. It is one thing to support, even promote, the use of special forces in new and emerging tactical situations. It is one thing to laud the performance of the SEALs, Army Rangers, the USMC, and others who do this kind of work so well.

Using the SEALs and this op as a backdrop for a political speech, however, is disgusting. I remember when liberals used to roll their eyes when Reagan used fighter-jet fly-bys at outdoor events.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Taking Art Seriously

I just want to drink whiskey and sing the blues. - Big Joe Turner

Ever since finishing Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, I've been thinking a whole lot about the way we think about art in general, and music in particular. Especially popular music in its various forms. As I wrote in my original post reviewing the book, while initially drawn to it because of this review, my understanding of the music itself, and social, political, and cultural conditions which birthed it, have changed. With Rolling Stone magazine honoring David Bowie's 65th birthday with a cover featuring a photo from the Ziggy Stardust days and a career retrospective, I think it is important to ask some questions about how we understand the relationships among art and society, and how treat artists and their endeavors.

In the first place, we need to consider the history of rock and roll and, later, rock, as it was interpreted and passed on by critics. As Edward Macan notes in his Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, rock music's roots in the African-American musical styles of blues and rhythm and blues created, as I called it in a discussion of Lester Bangs' critical work, an ideology of rock. This ideology created a set of iron-clad conditions for considering the merit of any given work. From pp. 169-171:
Besides disliking the perceived suggestio that progressive rock's appeal to high culture lent it "superiority," the critics asserted that the style's eclecticism and appropriation of devices associated with classical music removed it too far from rock's roots in rhythm-and-blues. Dave Marsh, in speaking o the body of twentieth-century popular music as a whole, stated, "What's really marginal [to the history of popular music] is the progressive rock that has produced great albums and dew if any hit singles, while dominating critical discussion. . . . [P]rogressive rock sounds dessicated to me because it's so thoroughly divorced from the taproot of rock and roll: rhythm and blues." Lester Bands, in his vitriolic write-up of ELP for Creem, charged the band with what he considered the greatest "crime" of all: "The insidious befoulment of all that was gutter pure in rock." . . .

Furthermore, "good" music, in the critics' estimation, would not take itself too seriously. Ideally, it would be dance music, rather than music meant to be listened to for its own sake. If it did fall into the latter category, the lyrics were expected to acknowledge rock's past, and to show a certain amount of self-conscious irony. Will Straw notes that "the consistent high regard for singers such as Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, and Tom Waits, for performers like Lou Reed, who played self-consciously with rock and roll imagery, stands out in a rereading of Rolling Stone from this period" (i.e., the early to mid-1970's). Progressive rock lyrics, which grappled with petaphsics and spun out complex narratives, were considered "pretentious" and "overly serious" and were lambasted for lacking any sense of irony. . . .

If progressive rock was too complex, too grandiose, too ambitious, too concerned with art for art's sake, then one would have thought that heavy metal - certainly a populist strain of rock if ever there was one - would receive the critics' approbation. TO the contrary, however, the critics attacked heavy metal with the same fury with which they attacked progressive rock, often illogically reversing their arguments. The seminal English heavy metal band Black Sabbath was described by one critic as having the "sophistication of four Cro-Magnon hunters who've stumbled on a rock band's equipment." Another critic described heavy metal as "music made by slack-jawed, alpaca-haired bulbous-inseamed imbeciles in jackboots and leather chrome for slack-jawed, alpaca-haired, downy-mustachioed imbeciles in cheap, too-large T-shirts with pictures of comic-book Armageddon ironed on the front."
In Mark Ames review, referred to above, one passage in particular echoes, in many ways, the themes Macan highlights:
The rise of the Black Metal movement in Norway is a case of humorless dirtheads taking a joke way too seriously. The joke was Satanic rock, which Lords of Chaos skillfully traces from its early origins in Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Coven (who transformed from performing black masses on stage to perpetrating the weepy hippie hit "One Tin Soldier") to metal’s second big wave in the early 80s and the rise of kitsch Satan-rockers Venom. To our modern eyes, Venom looks the spitting image of Spinal Tap during their Smell the Glove phase, but to dirtheads who didn’t know any better, Venom was the long-sought embodiment of evil. It was from the Venom branch of evil-metal that all of metal’s more violent, "evil" forms descended, including Black Metal.
The point of Satanic rock was to scare the Normals while fucking with the minds of its pimple-faced, predominantly male (nerdoid) audience, who needed to create a counter-world, with counter-morals and counter-aesthetics, to empower the nerdoids against the cooler, more successful jocks. But metal had its rivals for the hopelessly angry nerdoid: punk, hardcore and metal’s own competing mutations. The competition forced metal’s leading edge to metamorphose into harder, faster and more violent forms, reaching its apex with the rise of Death Metal in the mid-80s. Death Metal was as violent, Satanic and musically inaccessible as metal could go, or so it seemed.
Is it the case that popular music requires, at some point, a level of ironic detachment, a dedication that never allows itself to confuse seriousness of intent with the messages the music tries to convey? Perhaps, I am suggesting, we need to consider various popular music styles not as the result only of an artist's or group's vision, but consider, instead, the web of relationships among an artist, the audience, and the musical and lyrical content, leaving to one side whether or not one can or even should address matters of "seriousness" or "irony".

Ames' writes with an almost off-handed contempt not only for the music, about whose merit he says not a word, but for the intended audience. "Humorless dirtheads" must have been the result of several minutes work before finally settling as a description of the fans of Black Metal. While it's true that bands like Black Sabbath and Venom employed Satanic imagery - in the full understanding of that word - with a wink and a nod toward their audience, even a cursory glance at Black Sabbath's history should disabuse anyone of any idea that they were either being stupid, or considered their audience stupid.

One can look at this issue from a slightly different angle by considering the history and critical views regarding another African-American musical style: jazz. Born in the brothels and bars of New Orleans, growing up in the segregated dance halls and speakeasys of Chicago, New York, and Kansas City, jazz was and remains, at its heart, a celebration of life, rooted in the blues musical form, yet never resting pat with tradition. One need look no further than two well-known works by jazz critic Garry Giddins, Visions of Jazz and Weather Bird to consider the far-different way the relationships among the musician, biography, attentiveness and seriousness toward musical composition, and audience are treated within the circles of jazz criticism. Another example is Ralph Ellison's seminal essay on Charlie Parker, "Bird Watching", in which Ellison deals honestly with Parker's failings and the terrible toll they took on him and those around him even as he saw them as integral to understanding the man and his music. Critics may chuckle at Ozzy Osbourne's life-long battle with substance abuse, but an author looking to integrate that same struggle with the music Osbourne has produced over his very long career would be considered pretentious in the same, yet opposite, way Ellison's writing on Parker is offered as both "thoughtful" and considered de riguer.

Most rock critics would take the epigram at the top of this post, a quote from legendary rhythm and blues singer Joe Turner, as the only "proper" way to break through and understand rock and roll. Doesn't this approach, however, lead us to set to one side the reality that one can be serious about one's art, professional and appreciative of one's audience, and still have a bit of fun along the way? At what point do critics and others believe it necessary to step back from making music and say, "Thus far and no farther lest someone think I'm too serious"? At what point does the real joke, such as Lester Bangs' infamous insistence that Lou Reed's two-album release Metal Machine Music is high art, get lost on critics who cannot see beyond their own limited set of categories?

I think it is long past time to rip up the guidebook for music criticism that places a premium upon not taking one's work too seriously. Such a view, as the above quotes attest, also belittle the intended audience, who, from the critics' point of view, just aren't sophisticated enough to "get" the joke. That these same critics are blinded by their own set of analytical conditions not to see, for instance, Black Metal as Norway's national answer to Britain's punk, both in its social and cultural roots and intent, should be a cautionary tale to anyone who believes it possible to understand any musical style within a set of assumptions rooted far outside that style.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Scardey-Cat Democrats

We're hovering somewhere near the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade, which, of course, means our inability to discuss the matter as a people will be highlighted as each side - Dead Babies! You Hate Women! - screech at each other in a ritualized ragegasm that is as predictable as it is boring.

I thought this approaching date on our national cultural, social, and political liturgical calendar would be a good time to chide the Democratic Party for stirring up the fears of so many potential voters. The prime time for the anti-abortion crowd to get their mojo working was the previous decade. Instead, they picked fights over stem cells and a non-existent practice called "partial-birth abortion" as a way to keep the money flowing and the activists active. While it is indeed the case that the low-level domestic terror campaign against women's clinics has resulted in fewer such places operating, restricting practical access to a variety of services including abortion, as a legal matter, the status quo on abortion rights - revised in Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v Thornburg in 1989 - is under no threat of drastic change.

All the same, all one need do is whisper "pro-life candidate" and the screeching from Democrats begins. Not only will abortion be outlawed and the doctors and women involved become criminals; contraception, pre-marital sex, sex education in public schools, the introduction of mandatory chastity belts, the sterilization of all women of all ages - there is no end to the claims by pro-choice proponents in the fear-mongering over this issue. Common sense and a glance at recent history should be enough to quiet the chilling tales of what might happen should this or that candidate be elected to this or that office.

I shall confess here and now that I used to let this kind of thing sway me. Not just on matters regarding reproductive choice and women's health and the regulation of sexual activity. On all sorts of things. I operated out of a mindset that saw political opponents not as opponents, but as threats. Standing now outside the largely false dichotomies and ridiculous irrelevance of so much of our politics and public discourse, I yearn for just one figure in politics to say, "You know, Mitt Romney has his pluses and minuses as a person, but the question before us is whether or not the policies he proposes would be in the best interest of all Americans."

Of course, I also yearn for warp drive technology so I can go to another planet where things make sense.

It isn't just Republicans and conservatives who practice the politics of fear. I wore partisan/ideological blinders long enough to buy in to that notion. It certainly didn't help that much of the politics of the previous decade consisted of waving the bloody shirt of 9/11 around to silence anyone saying anything about Pres. Bush's policies. All the same, it just isn't true that only conservatives and Republicans play upon our fears to get people motivated to support candidates.

I grew tired of being afraid some time ago. Pres. Obama used to talk about hope, but I'm guessing the coming year is gonna be dire warnings about everything from the fragile state of the economy to Republican spies in our bedrooms policing our sex lives moreso than vague pledges of fealty to hope. Hope sounds nice. Fear gets the epinephrine pumping. I'm tired of thinking my fellow citizens are either too stupid to understand reality, or too elitist to understand how the real world works. I am weary of the name calling.

I am not speaking now of the politicians. I have little doubt they will continue to stoke our fears of all those horrid Christian thugs waiting to guard the wombs of our women even as they lock Muslims and atheists up forever under Pres. Obama's practice of lawful indefinite detention. What better way to make sure folks get the message than the hint that our country teeters on the edge of a chasm, and only our heroic efforts can pull it back?

I am speaking more about partisans, particularly those who write on the internet. It would be nice if those folks tamped it down a bit. Stop yelling. Stop seriously discussing the alleged threats to the Republic posed by a Romney/Gingrich/Paul/Santorum Presidency. Even should such an unlikelihood come to pass, we made it through eight years - EIGHT YEARS, FOLKS! - of George W. Bush. Stop calling them wingnuts and Rethugs and Christianist fascists and all the other names out there.

Our times are uneasy. The folks who support Republican candidates are our fellow citizens, uneasy by the uncertainty of our times. Making them not just folks who think differently than we do, but our enemies, a threat to the survival of the nation may be good politics. It is also bearing false witness against our neighbor. The nation will not collapse should a Republican be elected to the White House. Our rights and freedoms are under far more threat from the actual practices of the incumbent, particularly regarding indefinite detention, the recently passed NDAA, and the targeted assassination of American citizens (even if I occasionally voice support for this or that actual assassination) than by some spectral Republican candidate.

Man up, Democrats. Stop being a bunch of pussies. Seriously.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Some Honest Republicans

With an entirely new well-pump and all the fixin's being installed, I've spent most of the day perusing stories on the intertoobz instead of writing. I came across this story, and it got me thinking.
The campaign manager of Arkansas Democratic congressional candidate Ken Aden arrived home last night to find his child’s pet cat murdered on the front porch with the word “LIBERAL” scrawled across its lifeless body.
The usual denunciations are flowing. No doubt many will call it "cowardly".

On the contrary, it is an act from one of the few honest conservatives out there.

If it is, indeed, the case that liberals are not just our fellow citizens who have slightly different views regarding the best way to govern the country, but active, hostile threats to the Constitution of the United States, then aren't acts of violence against them, including intimidation, not only acceptable but morally justifiable? Seems to me, like all those doctors killed by right-to-lifers, there is most definitely a logic to this act that makes "cowardly" unintelligible in context.

Which, perhaps, should lead some few of us to shut the hell up. Stop the fear-mongering about what might happen to America if a Republican is elected President. Stop claiming that America might collapse should Obama be re-elected. Stop saying that Pres. Obama is destroying the country. Stop the apocalyptic rhetoric, right and left, that sees the US perched on the precipice of collapse depending on who is elected in November, and who is doing the viewing.

I don't believe for one moment that candidates from the two major parties will stop it. They have far too much invested in using fear-mongering to energize an electorate that just doesn't see any candidates addressing the real issues - real, normal, bread-and-butter issues of proper governance and Administration - that need to be faced.

We, however, can do better. We can refuse to be cowed by the rhetoric from some, "Beware Newt/Mitt/Santorum because they'll take away your abortion rights/impose Christianity/steal the middle class's money". None of that is going to happen. Neither with the alleged disarming/destruction/Islamification of America should Pres. Obama be re-elected. The House Republicans are obstructionist and, largely, incompetent. That doesn't make them dangerous, just a good source of both amusement and frustration. Mitch McConnell is not a threat to American Democracy from his perch as minority leader in the Senate; he's a ridiculous clown who is grasping at what little power he has.

The election of liberals or conservatives will not cause the collapse of the US. Neither will it save us from the nightmare in which we find ourselves.

Until we can all accept this reality, the true believers - killing cats to intimidate potential candidates for public office from any particular ideological perspective - are both honest and brave. If you listen to our public rhetoric, that is.

Thinking In Jesus Christ

The past week has been fruitful in any number of ways as I have engaged in a longish discussion on humility, how one approaches living, and understanding that living, as Christian in the fullest sense of the world. I've been around and through and over the repeated insistence that part of our humble approach toward this whole thing loosely called "being a Christian" is the reality of the openness of the future, an openness rooted in the Good News that is the heart of the Biblical witness.

It was my great good fortune to learn of a long-running blog by a doctoral candidate in theology at Edinburgh, Scotland. For those who may not quite get it, there is irony in the title, albeit, I think - in keeping with the blog writer's admiration for Barth and Moltmann (among others) - a dialectic of irony. In any event, as a way of introducing myself to what the blog offers readers, I checked out this series on theodicy, the bugaboo of theology. If all the things we say about God are understood correctly, the reality of evil becomes the great stumbling block, over which far too many folks trip on their way to hearing the Good News that God's Love and Grace, incarnate in Jesus Christ, has, in his death and resurrection, enacted the reconciliation between God and fallen creation.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the series on theodicy is among the best explorations of the topic I have read. Not least because it takes the matter head on. Evil is real. Death still holds sway. Whether it's the evil of children dying across the world from preventable diseases because pharmaceutical companies refuse to provide the drugs needed to prevent them at cost or even free, or the brutal reality of the husband who beats and belittles his wife and children - unlike the Love of God, who wears just one face, evil is constantly shifting, ever-changing, trying to stay one step ahead of the judgment upon it.

While not even trying to justify or "explain" evil in any way, Byron makes clear in this series that the only way to live in the midst of the on-going reality of evil and death, is in the faith and hope and with the love that flows through the cross and out the empty tomb. When I repeat what T. F. Torrance, the late great Scottish Reformed theologian said about the best theology - that it is thinking in Jesus Christ - this series is precisely what I mean.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Bunch Of New Songs

O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvellous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gained him victory.
Psalm 98:1

An on-going discussion, from a different angle . . .

Meet, if you would, Tony MacAlpine:

I was introduced to him, quite literally, less than two hours ago. Not new, perhaps. New to me, however. Which begs all sorts of questions, not least about what, precisely I thought I was doing with all those music posts for so long.

Then, there's a truly new band. They just released their first collection of music (I really hate calling them albums anymore since I buy it all electronically). They're from Texas. They're a mixture of classic psychedlic rock and good old fashioned Texas blues a la Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King. Their release, Conversations in D Minor, was one of the gifts I gave myself with my iTunes bucks.

Then there is the discovery that even in darkness and the celebration of evil, one can find beauty. There is something about the songs of the Norwegian Black Metal band Emperor that I just find . . . entrancing. I am the last person to say I like the whole screaming-rather-than-singing thing that has infected so much rock. Yet, it works here so well, in combination with the whole sonic, tonal approach. I cannot help but call it beautiful. Dark beauty to be sure, but that, too, is a part of God's creation.

Also, I should mention the fun I've been having using the various artist radio stations on Spotify. If you don't have it, I highly recommend it, especially over the far overrated and tired Pandora.

So, there's always all sorts of new things to hear, new sounds to encounter and think about. New songs to sing to the LORD, like the Psalmist says.

Virtual Tin Cup

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