Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What Moral Authority?

Last year, I caught some grief from some people when I insisted that United States had no business intervening in the Libyan Civil War. That Qaddafi ended up dead and the country is slouching toward something that resembles a more representative form of government is a good thing, but hardly proves wrong those who, like me, insisted we had no business and even less reason to get involved.

One argument that got tossed at me concerned American "moral authority" to intervene in order not only to defend the citizens under attack from elements of their own country's armed forces, but also to uphold the principal that the US will side with the people against dictators.

The argument is laughable on its face, in general. The US has no moral authority on the international stage, and every time someone in one or another US administration claims we do, the hoots of laughter are deafening. For good reason.

Prior to the uprising, the United States had enjoyed steadily improved relations with the Qaddafi regime since it had sworn off its WMD program, dealt with outstanding matters relating to the Pan Am Flight 008 bombing, and emptied out the camps it had previously left open for terrorists to use for training. It appears, however, that the rapproachment went a bit further than was on the public record.
Last month Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service announced that the operations, in which two leading Libyan dissidents were abducted and taken to Tripoli with their families, were to be the subject of a criminal investigation.

A few days later lawyers for both families began civil proceedings against Sir Mark Allen, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, accusing him of complicity in their "extraordinary rendition", torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. Proceedings against the government, MI6 and MI5 are to follow.

The case is based in large part upon a batch of documents discovered in an abandoned Libyan government office last September. These showed that the abductions were plotted with the help of MI6: it was all part of the rapprochement between Gaddafi and the UK and US that saw the dictator abandon his WMD programme and open oil and gas exploration opportunities to western firms.

When a researcher for Human Rights Watch stumbled upon the documents, no attempt was made to deny MI6 involvement in the rendition operations they described.

Instead, Whitehall sources immediately said the operations were part of "ministerially authorised government policy". The statement was intended as a clear signal that a secretary of state had signed off a "clause 7 authorisation" under the Intelligence Services Act.

Section 7 is entitled Authorisation of Acts outside the British Islands, and says: "If, apart from this section, a person would be liable in the United Kingdom for any act done outside the British Islands, he shall not be so liable if the act is one which is authorised to be done by virtue of an authorisation given by the secretary of state under this section."
A couple words about this. Yes, it is a case of British as opposed to American acts. As much of a lapdog as the British have been since the election of Tony Blair, however, I would hardly be surprised if it were only the British who had decided it was OK to send folks to Libya to be tortured. Concerning the Americans have been spreading the wealth around, with folks going to Egypt, eastern Europe, and some Central Asian nations, sending folks to Libya for interrogation certainly isn't outside the realm of possibility.

Furthermore, the UK is viewed abroad as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the United States. Their actions follow on our own, and have done so for quite a while. Where else would the British have learned of such a brilliant idea as sending Libyan dissidents back to Libya where they would be tortured, but from the US?

It is long past time to set to one side the idea that the US has anything resembling "moral authority" on pretty much anything. These latest revelations, as disgusting as they are, are not in the least surprising. As a demonstration of "Business As Usual", it shows just how hollow the sudden conversion to regime change in Libya came last year, and how ridiculous and ad hoc the military response. As Duncan writes by way of introductory commentary, they're our bastards until they aren't. In this case, the only reason they suddenly became NOT our bastards was the Arab Spring. Don't fool yourself for one minute; if there had been no uprising in Libya, the Brits and the Americans would still be shipping folks there.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Capturing The Nerd Vote

Charlie Pierce asks an important question.
When did we become so quick to mock this kind of thing? When did our national imagination wither this way? When did exploration become just another "big government" program for pipsqueaks like Willard Romney to ridicule?
I'm old enough to remember when the space program was something capable of moving the entire world to wonder and delight. It seemed like something we all got together and did as a species.
I must admit more than a little conflict on this matter. On the one hand, there is something more than a little breathtaking about the thought of human beings exploring space. On the other hand, there's the fact that our robot exploration program is up and running and doing quite well. On the one hand there's the sad fact that Pierce is correct. Too many, at least within the political class, have withered imaginations, leaving the kind of child-like awe and fascination that lay at the heart of the attraction of the space program to become childish fantasizing. On the other hand, the cold reality is there is great danger and cost in sending humans in to space. These are dangers and costs that all of us bear. We have lost three sets of astronauts: Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. While a pretty good safety record, all things considered, it still demonstrates the dangers even when we know how to do something this complex pretty well.

Then, of course, there is Imperialism. Far too much of the space program was couched in terms that reminded far too many people thinking of the French, the British, and the Americans planting flags on various distant shores and claiming them for national glory without any thought being given to the folks who lived there. While there is no evidence - yet - of any folks out there for us to ignore in our quest for glory, one would think some caution would be warranted before we as a people (whether national or as a species) started thinking about planting whatever flag we choose on the Moon or Mars or wherever.

The United States should resume our part in sending human beings to space. It is a sign of national decline that we allowed the Shuttle program to come to an end without anything to take its place. At the same time, we should pursue human space travel with care on multiple levels. It is true enough, I think, that much of the mocking of Gingrich's idea demonstrates not so much a problem on his part as it does a kind of malaise among many of our elites. That doesn't mean we should run whole hog in to the arms of folks who have visions of The Sea of Tranquility looking like an exurban strip mall, and Boeing or Northrop or some other company seeking to change the name and copyright it in order to make a buck.

More On Humility, More Cutting & Pasting

From now on, I'm just going to steal other people's stuff. That way, I don't have to think of stuff to write. In this instance, I feel a little less guilty, because I'm stealing something from someone who had stolen it from someone else.
What exactly is humility? Does it mean speaking of ourselves as unaccomplished, even when this is not the case? In truth, humility is not difficult to define (though it is hard to embody). It means not regarding ourselves as more important than other people, including those who have achieved less than we have. And it implies judging ourselves not in comparison with others, but in light of our capabilities, and the tasks we believe God has set for us on earth. This idea is conveyed in a seemingly immodest teaching of Rabbi Israel Salanter: “I know that I have the mental capacity of a thousand men, but because of that, my obligation is also that of a thousand men”. As Rabbi Salanter’s statement emphasizes, the very capabilities that can make a person most proud (“I know I have the mental capacity of a thousand men”) are also those that should be most humbling. If we have greater wisdom, then we also have a greater responsibility to bring people to understanding and wisdom. If we have wealth, then we have a greater responsibility to help those in need. If we occupy a position of power, we have greater obligation to help the oppressed. In short, the fact that we have greater abilities than another does not mean that we are greater in God’s eyes – another person, for example, might be more accomplished than we are in fulfilling the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” – but only that we have greater responsibilities. Thinking about how much we can do in comparison to what we have done also serves as a corrective against pride and arrogance.
Seems reasonable enough to me.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Do I understand your question": Alan F. Moore's Rock: The Primary Text

It seems to me that our concern with the music includes, but does not begin from, the ways that it is used: in other words, the aesthetic question is primary, as I have suggested in the introduction. Our concern has to begin from the sounds, because until we cognize the sounds, until we have created an internal representation on the basis of their assimilation, we have no musical entity to care about, or to which to give value. Once sounds have been produced, nobody is in a position to exclusively determine how they are to be taken . . . . This does not mean that the musical text may be considered to arise ex nihilo. It is produced by groups of musicians working in social contexts, but they are not my primary concern. I am far less interested in uncovering the circumstances which produced the music than I am in exploring how listeners may respond to it.
Rock: The Primary Text, Developing a musicology of Rock, 2d edition, p. 17
In 1991, British musicologist Philip Tagg wrote, but never published, an exhaustive study of the song "Fernando" by the 70's pop group ABBA. If this seems odd, it should be noted that sociologist and rock critic Simon Frith once wrote, rather caustically, that it would be ridiculous to claim one person's enjoyment of ABBA was similar to another's enjoyment of Mozart. Such a sentiment, coming from one who admitted in his most thorough work on the sociology and history of rock and roll that he was completely ignorant when it came to studying the music itself, and never bothered to educate himself in the rudiments of such study, rang like a challenge. Tagg picked it up, examining everything from the provenance of the song, its recording and production, its popularity and critical reception, and its performance versus recorded textures. Toward the end, he wrote (in Rock: The Primary Text, p.217):
[A]ny discussion of mass culture or mass society in general will need to include analyses of musical meaning, for it is in the non-verbal forms of symbolic representation that emotional level of social, cultural, political and ideological meaning are to be found. . . . if cultural theorists, sociologists, linguists, etc. are not prepared to take music into consideration in their discussion of symbolic production in contemporary society and if musicians and musicologists are not prepared to shoulder the responsibility this lays on them to demystify their art and its hieroglyphics, we will be left with little or not viable cultural theory of our own times.
Part of the Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series, in Rock: The Primary Text, Developing a Musicology of Rock, British musicologist Alan Moore goes one step further. With the rise of rock in Britain, from the mid-1960's through the 1990's (the first edition was published in 1993; the second edition was published in 2001), amid all the critical and social and political clamorings concerning the music, the development of various styles, millions of words by fans and journalists and sometimes even the musicians themselves, there had yet to be an attempt to analyze the music itself, to understand what "rock" was, what its variants might (or might not) be, and therefore be able to place it more fully and completely within the context of British society and culture in the last half of the 20th century.

I first heard of this book when I bought Edwin Macan's Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture in 1997. Macan says, on page 7, that Moore "attempt[s] nothing less than to create the first stylistic survey of rock from its inception to the present." While ambitious, Moore doesn't quite do that. His focus is far narrower, and the question of "style" - what it is, how it functions, whether the labels we put on various musical styles have any meaning beyond contingent groupings from what Moore calls "competent listeners" - is contested space. Indeed, the Introduction of Moore's book bothers itself quite a bit attempting to define the word "rock", as opposed, say, to rock-and-roll or pop. Nevertheless, the book is, indeed, ambitious in scope. At the same time, it is focused, one might almost call it lean. While hardly eschewing technical detail - it is, primarily, a textbook for musicologists - the work functions as a guide for piercing through much of historical, critical, and journalistic slurry that has accumulated over the decades regarding the music.

One of the chief virtues of Moore's work is the way the analysis of songs, and even bodies of work, can go a long way toward "demystifying" (to use Tagg's terminology) even an artist's understanding of his or their work. The first big rock movement in Britain next to the Beatles was the so-called "blues revival", fueled by John Mayall's Blues Breakers and The Yardbirds. Two guitarists who played in the latter group, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, are on voluminous record regarding their indebtedness to American blues. Clapton claimed he left The Yardbirds on principle; the band, he said, just wasn't bluesy enough, so he formed Cream. When The Yardbirds finally disintegrated, Page picked up some of those pieces and formed Led Zeppelin. As the revival was petering out, some of those influenced by the initial burst of energy formed bands of their own, among the first and most popular was Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. For decades, critics, journalists, fans, and the musicians themselves have simply repeated, without too much thought, that these three groups - Cream, Led Zeppelin, (the early) Fleetwood Mac - are electrified blues. Using the tools of musicological analysis, however, leads to the conclusion, as Moore states on p. 76, "the 'inspiration' which some critics suggest the blues supplied is hard to sustain."
It may be that the enrichment of techniques found among the musicians discussed here can be put down to their assumed appropriation of the blues, but in reality, this 'blues ideology' was grafted on to stylistic practices which it only partly fitted.
Only Fleetwood Mac, it seems, was a "blues" band - using simple I-IV-V, twelve bar forms. While both Led Zeppelin and Cream did cover blues songs - Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson, most notably - their own compositions bore little to no resemblance to any accepted understanding of "the blues". Without taking the primary text - the songs - as a guide, this cannot be understood clearly.

Moore also explores matters of authenticity, inspiration, and the perceived contrast - among critics, in particular, but also self-described fans as well - between what is too often considered the careful construction (and over-construction) of the songs of some British progressive rock bands, as opposed to the far less careful, far more immediate songs of other performers. While some work has already been done on the question of authenticity in popular music, Moore cuts through much of the thickets surrounding the debate on these contested matters by comparing "The Knife", a song of Genesis' Trespass album, and Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks". Without belaboring the point too much (the discussion begins on p. 93, included in a larger discussion of the rise of the concept album), criticizing any particular song as "crafted" as opposed to another that seems less so, without actually analyzing the song structure, can reveal ignorance as much as anything. Few songs, indeed whole albums, were more calculated and carefully crafted as music (and, I might add, as entertainment; Van Morrison, by creating a certain mystique both about the writing and recording of this beautiful record, as well as himself as a performer, was a marketing genius) than Astral Weeks. While certainly different in style and detail from Genesis, one cannot claim the former is somehow less "carefully crafted". One may consider Genesis' music less appealing for any number of reasons; ignoring the songs in question as songs, however, begs the question one claims to be answering.

Moore's work moves through British blues, progressive and heavy metal, to punk and the post-punk styles, in each case being clear that part of his task concerns the labels or "styles" we give to the varieties of music. While they may share certain common features, as the foregoing make clear, there are many cross-currents and much interchange among what many believe, even insist, are discrete styles. The labels, and the styles to which they refer, may well break down upon analysis of the musical texts themselves.

While I find Macan's attempt to place musical styles within a larger sociological framework (I say attempt because, by and large, I find his treatment of the initial and subsequent audiences for English Progressive Rock to be both superficial and lacking in nuance) to be a far richer way of finding the meaning of music within the larger context of social and cultural life, it bears repeating that without an attempt at analyzing music qua music, there is no way to come to terms with the meaning the music has. Relying upon historical accounts, without those accounts taking in to consideration musical detail, also fail in the end to give us as full an understanding as we might otherwise prefer. Moore's work is a good beginning in reframing our discussions of rock music by insisting on the primacy of the songs themselves.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Racism & Retrograde Politics In British Rock

We Americans tend to privilege our understanding of the birth and spread of the multi-faceted phenomenon of pop music that has come to be labeled "rock". From rock and roll and rhythm and blues in the 1950's through hip-hop over the past quarter century, since these phenomena started here, we tend to speak and think their histories in American terms, with American referents. Central to the narrative is the role these musics played in the cultural acceptance of African-American within the American mainstream, as part of the larger demand for political and social rights for African-Americans in this country.

What of other countries? The primary partner in the creation of this music has been Great Britain. In the 1950's, Bill Haley & The Comets toured Britain, playing to sell-out crowds around the country (a young Graham Nash would meet Bill Haley by the stage door in his home city of Manchester, a moment that would change his life forever). Their song, "Rock Around The Clock", became the title of a film that sparked riots among a group of youths called Teddy Boys in Britain. When independent labels, particularly Chess And Checkers Records from Chicago started exporting records by performers like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, British youths like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards snatched them up.

The history of British pop and rock, separate from the overall history of rock, would be an interesting study, to say the least. Matters of race and class being very different there than here, the interplay among these, the music, youth culture, and British politics should be studied very carefully.

Three incidents, all from the 1970's, highlight, I think, the differences between what too many commentators (I'm thinking, in particular, of Ed Ward, Simon Frith, and other historians of popular music) have glossed over as unimportant or irrelevant.

In 1976, David Bowie gave an extensive interview to Cameron Crowe. Crowe managed to publish three stories, two in Rolling Stone, and one in Playboy magazine. The last one has become infamous, for very good reasons.
I'd love to enter politics. I will one day. I'd adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that's hanging foul in the air at the moment of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. A liberal wastes time saying, "Well, now, what ideas have you got?" Show them what to do, for God's sake. If you don't, nothing will get done. I can't stand people just hanging about. Television is the most fascist, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.
In the years since, Bowie has not only apologized, but completely renounced any affiliation with any reactionary politics. He even married African-born supermodel Iman. Fueled by massive amounts of cocaine, he may very well have just been spouting off nonsense. All the same, one cannot unfuck oneself, as the saying goes.

Also in 1976, Eric Clapton said some things that sparked a whole movement. Against what he was saying.
t was 5 August 1976 and Eric Clapton was drunk, angry and on stage at the Birmingham Odeon. 'Enoch was right,' he told the audience, 'I think we should send them all back.' Britain was, he complained, in danger of becoming 'a black colony' and a vote for controversial Tory politician Enoch Powell whom he described as a prophet was needed to 'keep Britain white'.
For those who may not know, here's an infamous speech by Powell from 1968, showing him at his "prophetic" best. Unlike Bowie, Clapton has never apologized for these remarks. While one can, perhaps, consider his subsequent life and career - including his current residency in Antigua - as mitigating any negative judgment upon the man, I would beg to differ for a number of reasons, to which I'll return in a moment.

In 1979, on tour with Bonnie Bramlett, Elvis Costello said, well, I'll just let you read it for yourself.
Bramlett stayed to chat up Costello, a volatile performer whose rising musical reputation has been accompanied by erratic behavior and hostility toward both fans and press. "Someone asked him what he thought of the old guys, like Buddy Holly," reports one eyewitness. Costello replied with an obscenity. "What about Elvis Presley?" Costello snapped another obscenity. "Then he said American people are second-class white people, compared to first-class English people."

Bramlett, a longtime paladin of rhythm-and-blues whose backup bands once included heavies like Leon Russell, Duane Allman and Rita Coolidge, kept cool until, she says, Costello "called James Brown a jive-ass nigger." Next, according to an onlooker, "Bonnie said, 'All right, you son of a bitch, what do you think of Ray Charles?' He said, 'Screw Ray Charles, he's nothing but a blind nigger.'
To be fair (a bit, anyway), Costello did apologize, insisting he was not at all a racist. Indeed, he was active in the British Rock Against Racism movement, which formed initially in response to Clapton's outburst in Birmingham, but also due to an increasing appropriation of punk among racist skinheads (not to mention Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux, among other punk performers, sporting swastikas).

The history of popular music in Britain, running on its separate path from its American counterpart, responded to different political, social, and cultural events and cues. The music itself developed along much different paths, and the musicians themselves, for all they were appropriating a music rooted in African-American life and history, came to the music largely ignorant of the subtle social and cultural cues in it. In the case of Clapton, in particular, it is difficult to unravel the many strands that connect his deep and very real love for the blues of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and B. B. King in particular from an outburst for which he has never provided an adequate explanation, let alone distanced himself. Personally, I believe this is because, while loving the blues and the performers who popularized it, Clapton doesn't understand the music in its original form. Instead, appropriating it from the standpoint of class rather than a mixture of race and class - something that, I believe, lies at the heart of the love for the blues among many British musicians - Clapton (and Jimmy Page and Richie Blackmore and John Mayall and Peter Green and Keith Richards and so many others) could hear the call of liberation within the music without getting it. It becomes easy, if you rip an art form like the blues out of any contextual space, to hear it as one thing, while it may be something else all together. It is one thing, indeed, to take in an art form and make it a part of your life, using it as a form of self-expression to which you believe you can relate; it is another thing altogether to do so without any understanding of all that went in to creating that art form in the first place.

Like the racist Oi! movement in Britain that combined punk and reggae and early ska, appropriating art forms without any grasp of what they are in their totality creates odd situations, to say the least.

The popular music that began in the United States in the 1950's and continues to spread around the world in all its varieties is, at its heart, a music of freedom. It always has been. Freedom from the strictures of parental control among adolescents. Freedom from the social and political barriers that oppress. When one lives out freedom, singing out for all the world to hear, "Ah wop bop a-loo-bop, a whop bam BOOM!", one has already undermined the structures that seek to keep you down.

Not understanding this basic reality, because one's own "set" - one's national and personal history; the cultural and social norms and rules within which one finds oneself - is alien in every conceivable way, one can interact with an art such as the one described above without understanding it for what it really is. In order to write a history of British pop and rock, I think it is necessary to get clear, from the outset, that at the deepest, most fundamental roots of the interchange among culture, society, and politics, the British never understood the music they were hearing. Which gave room for some seriously ugly incidents that demonstrate not only this misunderstanding, but the blemishes among otherwise talented and influential artists.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More