Ferguson From Afar

I am surprised at how much the media is covering the Ferguson case in Australia.   I left the news on last night while reading and must have seen four or five different segments on it.  I also read Officer Wilson’s testimony as well as Browns friend’s testimony as well this morning. 

I am biased against the police from my own personal interactions with them.  Also, the disparity in the accounts seems wide enough that I would have liked to have seen a trial.  But this is all mere speculation.  My dad is a lawyer and he has taught me that unless you have all of the facts one cannot really have more than a biased opinion about a case. 

However, whether Wilson is guilty or not, I completely understand the anger of the black community.  This does not mean that any kind of violence is warranted, only that if you know how the criminal justice system treats minorities, one can see how this case has taken on symbolic underpinnings.  

If you have no idea why people are angry, I highly recommend reading Matt Taibbi’s The Divide for starters.  He goes into depth in this book about how unjust our criminal justice system really is.  Taibbi is an excellent writer who makes great use of language to highlight the absurdity that is part of everyday American life for many.  What many people are put through would not seem out of place in a Kafka novel. 

Hopefully the violence will cease soon, but that a close examination of our criminal justice system will go on for a long time, until we can approach something close to equal justice for all.  

Fun at the Airport

In LAX waiting to fly to Australia.   I realized today that there was no way I could blow up a plane, aside from any moral misgivings I might have.  Under no circumstances could I ever choose to have an airport be the last place I see.  How depressing is that shit?!!!  Not only do you have to blow yourself up, but you have to agree to an airport being the last place your feet touch the ground. 

Kevin Russell once said that an airport was, “a mall, a jail, and a bus stop”, all added together.  But like one of those great bands where the sum is infinitely bigger than the sound of the members, an airport might be worse.  I’ve spent a night in jail.  It made me want to kill someone, but not myself. 

At what point did Americans become such a pussified fear ridden country?   One dude has explosives in his shoes that don’t even go off, and we take our shoes off when entering an airport for the rest of eternity.  

And when did we start having stores in airports which have items that cost more than the GDP of some third world countries?  Why do they hate us?  Because when Muhammed is the first from his village to study abroad, the first thing he sees is a purse that costs more than every hut in his village combined. 

And does fear of flying turn everyone on a plane into rambling idiots?  I have never heard one conversation on a plane that didn’t sound like the adults in Charlie Brown.  Do you know what the sound of crushed souls combined with the failure of the test driven American education system is like?  And let’s not even talk about the babies.

Oh, don’t go getting your panties in a bunch, I am just having fun. 

Ken Burn’s The Civil War and Thinking Critically

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As I have said in prior posts, I’m watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  As a point of entry and an overview, I think it is outstanding.  I think it is an extremely well done documentary series that includes an incredible amount of information in an easily understandable way.  It is great TV.  I think it is good history too, as long as you view it as an overview.  One could make a documentary series just about the battle of Gettysburg, or any number of things that this covers.

I can’t help but feel watching parts of it though, that it is sanitized history.  I don’t necessarily mean this as a dig against the series.  When I was a history major in college I realized that the larger the period of time that you covered, the more the class was only going to deal with surface events.  If you took European History you would get names and dates and a couple of overreaching themes.  I took a class on just the years of the Third Reich leading up to World War II, for instance, and you got much deeper into the human mud of what was going on in that time.  So I think that in dealing with a subject as epic as the Civil War, only having eleven and a half hours to tell it, they did about as good as anyone could.

Let me diverge for a minute.  In the TV show Deadwood, which is a western TV show that takes place in the town of Deadwood, there is a scene where the army comes to town.  The commander of the army makes a speech that is the kind of speech you can imagine a commander making.  Meanwhile a deranged looking soldier mutters things like, “We ate our horses.”  In one scene you are getting the noble version of a story and the less noble truth at the same time.

Now before I go any further I want to make something clear.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t believe what they read in history books.  I’m not saying that every event has a conspiracy behind it and that traditional history is a deception.  In fact many history books are brutally honest.  But one should always read history with a critical eye.  Most of the time historians are doing their best to get at the truth.  But everyone has certain biases, only certain information might be available at anytime, or they just might have real world issues like certain time constraints upon their work.  Some people are just better writers than others.  As with most things in life approaching something from multiple viewpoints is the best way to get a well rounded portrait of something.  I read two or three books on Custer last year, I honestly can’t remember, and each book made the picture a little clearer.

But by sanitized history I mean that something paints a narrative that, while telling the truth, doesn’t challenge the existing order of things.  I mean Lee is constantly treated as revered.  It’s always mentioned that he had time for privates, that he was a good man at his core, that he was a brilliant general. But he fought for Virginia because he believed that is where his duty lay.  He let duty lead him to fight on the side of slavery.  Now I understand, and I myself risk simplifying things, that slavery at the start of the war, wasn’t the only thing that people were fighting over.  I also understand that you have to try to look at things in the context of their time.  But at the end of the day he did do just that, he fought on the side that wanted to protect slavery.  And while he was no doubt a brilliant general in a lot of ways, he sent many troops to their slaughter at Gettysburg in a terrible blunder.   Stonewall Jackson, in the book I am reading, is often sweet and good natured in his private life, but could commit acts of war with bloody ferocity.  Both his private kindness and his public savagery were allowed to exist because he, and many in the Civil War, believed they were instruments of God.  Well it would be a an incomplete picture to not present them as complicated, fully realized humans, that had both good and bad qualities, too often often history does not lay it out bare that these people were emotional mutants.  They could play with children and then send those children’s fathers to die for state pride at best, and the right to maintain slavery at worst.  It is true that Grant could also send large numbers of troops to die, but at that point emancipation was on the table, and that was something morally worth fighting for.

I think the show Deadwood, a work of fiction based on reality, does a far better job than a lot of history in terms of exposing the ugliness, and sometimes the human grace, in our past.  I mean these Civil War battles were truly things of the utmost horror.  Thousands of people were often shot down in mere minutes.  These were battles of butchery and savagery.  The documentary series shows dead bodes, and uses words like butchery and savagery, but I don’t think it makes it vivid enough how truly horrible these battles were.  They too often seem like things of the past, safe from the modern world.  These were our ancestors, only two human life spans away, that were dismembering each other in the most horrible ways imaginable.  This wasn’t the middle ages.  There was a scene in the episode last night where white and black Union troops were fighting the Confederates.  The Confederates were saying, if there were captives to take, “Take the whites and kill the niggers.”  That’s somebody’s great great grandpa!  I mean slave owners were selling people’s children off.  People that did that shit helped build this country!  Again, all of this stuff is talked about in the show, but there it seems to be treated almost too reverential at times.  While the show often acknowledges the horrible, it often doesn’t acknowledge the absurd, and these things are often disconnected from our present.

I actually think this is a great documentary series, despite my criticisms above.  My point is not to disparage the show.  I think, again, given the amount of material they had to cover in a given time, they did so in a truly extraordinarily way that is a great overview of this time in history.  But I think one can hold the contradictory opinion of acknowledging someone’s achievement while also criticizing it.  The filmmakers did an outstanding job, but the viewer must now do theirs in thinking critically about the information presented.

America’s Growing Pains

I mentioned in an earlier post today that I want to read S.C. Gwynne’s new book Rebel Yell:  The Violence, The Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  I also want to read Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  In truth, I’ve been thinking a lot about slavery and the Civil War since the election.

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog how Gwynne’s last book, Empire of the Summer Moon, shed light for me on the culture of Texas.  Because of the Comanche, early Texas was a place where survival was almost Darwinian.  Only the strongest or luckiest survived.  It is not hard to see in Texas, a state full of pride and larger than life characters, how the culture of the state could have come out of that world.

It seems that many of the problems that this country faces right now are due to a kind of super-capitalism, where market forces have overridden logic and reason.  Why is American capitalism so much more destructive than the kind that exists in Europe?  This is especially true if you look at what is going on with the environment.  This is also true if you look at America’s safety net compared with that of the rest of the Western world.  There are many reasons, but I can’t help but feel that culture is lagging behind history.

What kind of culture and economy did we inherit because of slavery and the civil war?  How did those two factors contribute to the making of modern America?

I was talking to a friend a few nights ago and we were debating politics.  We were comparing Europe to America and again asking the question of why, in certain ways, Europe is culturally ahead of America right now.  The truth is that Europe has its own violent and horrible history.  However, they have a much longer history than we do.  They have bled out several times over.  Much of what exists in Europe today is a partial reaction to the World Wars that were fought there.

Although Europe is doing certain things better than America right now, this does not mean that in the long scope of history that they are better.  They have had much longer to get to where they are at.  The problem right now is, in a world so interconnected, especially with problems like overpopulation and climate change on the horizon, can the world wait for us to go through our “growing pains”?

Regional Music and Political Differences

One of the reasons that America has had such a great musical tradition was that it is such a vast country with so many different kinds of people.  In the past you truly had a lot of regional music.  You would have different kinds of folk or blues music in different parts of the country.  The music in Tennessee would be very different than the music in Pennsylvania or Texas.  Many rural parts of the country were artistically somewhat cut off from the world at large so music was allowed to mutate differently in different regions.  Then on top of it these different styles would come to cities and each city would develop its own style based on the way styles combined. 

This is still true in different ways.  There are still regional differences, although they aren’t as pronounced.  Definitely different regions prefer certain types of music.  But I am talking about true regional music, and not just stylistic differences.  I am talking about how blues created in Mississippi differed greatly from Chicago blues, and not blues vs. country or whatever.

One reason you don’t see as much regional music is people have more access to other parts of the world.  You are only a YouTube video away from seeing what is going on in another city, for example.  In the past music traveled a much slower and less direct route. 

However, I am noticing that a lot of conservative areas feature the same bland corporate music that every other area does.  Corporate country is the most typical.  This is some of the worst stuff ever.  Music that is country in name only.  It is basically corporate pop music with a slight accent and maybe a fiddle in the background. 

I can’t help but feel that large national and multinational corporations are bleeding our culture dry.  This is the opposite of what I talked about in the last post.  I said we need to think outside of our own tribes and cultures.  In terms of making political decisions I think this is true.  But while large corporations are praying upon our cultural differences to divide and conquer, they are also crushing the differences that are worth keeping. 

We end up with a culture that is homogenized,  bland, and uninteresting, while at the same time we are divided politically where we can least afford to be.  Yes, both are possible, and both are happening.  Instead of the two canceling each other out, as one would suspect, the two compliment each other.  They reinforce the fear that people have of their traditions and culture being threatened, while shifting the blame for this from the large corporations to the “outsiders”. 

At least that is my take on it, for what it is worth.  Our country is turning into one giant strip mall, and we are being taught to kill each other over what store someone likes to shop in.

Happiness Vs. Change

The other day at one of my shows someone asked me if I was happy.  I said yes, but I felt like I was lying.  However, I don’t mean this as I am unhappy.  It’s just that I feel happiness is a moment to moment feeling.  In general, I feel happy, but even on a good day there are moments when you might feel a twinge of sadness, a flash of anger, or a moment of regret.  I’ve said before that I view happiness, in the way we think of it in America, as overrated.

To me it is much more important that you live a life of authenticity than it is to be happy every moment.  One should always push themselves to try and do new things.  Often taking risks and trying new things can be stressful.  I could be happy just reading a book on my couch sitting next to my dog.  It doesn’t take much to make me happy.  But an entire life of that wouldn’t really be living would it?

My last post was me promoting a solo show.  In order to get ready for that show I will have to do a lot of work this week.  I will also be stressed trying to make sure that it is promoted properly, that I am prepared musically, etc.  If it all goes well I will feel some sense of achievement.  However, no matter how well it goes, I will be thinking about what I could be doing better next time and so on.

My point is that playing that show will be the thing I will remember a few months down the road, even though getting ready for it will cause me moments of stress.   Meanwhile, the time that I allow myself to relax and unwind and enjoy myself will be largely forgotten.

Last year my girlfriend and I presented a paper at an environmental conference in Costa Rica.  We had to speak to a full room of people who were experts in the field.  We had the fewest credentials out of anyone else that was speaking, although she has a degree in Environmental Science and Policy, and I was going to school for the same thing at the time.  It required a ridiculous amount of work and there were definitely moments of stress as we realized what we were getting ourselves into.  The thing is, I will always remember that day with pride, but I can’t say that until it was over that it made me happy.

Meanwhile a thousand moments of happiness since that day have been forgotten.  I mentioned earlier this week that I got a Playstation 3 for my birthday.  I was looking up games and I found one that I really enjoyed playing before.  Until the moment that I saw it I had absolutely no recollection of ever having played it, and it was one of those Japanese games that takes like 80 hours to beat.

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t do things that make them happy.  The brain needs times to relax.  I feel that one is able to take on larger more stressful tasks if one also has moments of relaxation and enjoyment.  But it is far more important to take chances and try new things.  Change and risk can be really stressful.  But it just might lead to a life worth living.

Prop 1 In Austin and Public Transportation

I apologize in advance for those of you outside of Austin, although I do think what I’m about to write pertains to people outside of Austin.  In Austin we are debating public transportation right now.  There is a proposition on the ballot that will fund 9.5 miles of rail and improvements to our roads.  It is called Prop 1 on the ballot.  If you want to support it, vote yes on Prop 1.  Even at a conservative estimate the rail is supposed to take 10,000 cars a day off of the roads.  Why is this a conservative estimate?  Because they want to pass more rail in the future.  In order to do this the first one has to work as promised.  They would prefer it to work better than they said, and not worse, so they are estimating that it will take 10,000 cars off the road each weekday, but in reality the numbers will actually probably be higher.

Here are some things that a lot of people don’t know:

1.  The federal government is matching the City of Austin dollar for dollar.  So those that are worried about price, which seems to be why most people are worried, should know that if we pass it now, we will only have to pay for half of it.

2.  Taxes will not be increased fully until 2020 and then it will be on average of $20 dollars a month per household.

3.  Many people don’t understand why the city is starting with one line.  This is because the last time the city tried to pass rail, they tried a comprehensive plan and it was voted down by a small margin.  This time they are trying to do it a little bit at a time so it has a better chance of passing.  They are addressing I-35, which is the worst road in Austin.  This 9.5 miles of rail also hits a lot of the main parts of Austin including downtown, UT, ACC campus at the Highland Mall, East Riverside, and the med center.

4.  Some people are concerned that it doesn’t go to the airport.  If it went to the airport they would have to deal with Federal Aviation and the price tag would be even higher.  Again, this plan was put into place because they were trying to get something that would pass, based on the defeat of last time, while still addressing a wide number of concerns in the city.

Now those are just a couple answers to people’s concerns that I have heard.  There are things I didn’t bring up, like it will be more environmentally friendly than having all those people drive, It’s the kind of project that Americans need to be doing to get off of fossil fuels, it will provide convenient and affordable transportation for those that owning a car isn’t a reality, and it will make the city more livable.  If you were to ask most people what the worst thing about Austin is, most people would probably say the traffic.

But this proposition is also the moral thing to do.  This is where those of you that are not from Austin should be interested.  Both because of climate change and because of conflicts that arise over oil, we need to be finding ways to diminish our use of gas.  Getting 10,000 people a day, and hopefully more in the future, won’t change the world in and of itself, but it is the start of a lifestyle change that we need to be making.

Those that only think of their own pocketbook are missing the larger picture.  We spend money on all kinds of wasteful stuff in this country.  I’m sure that anyone that complains about taxes probably has some kind of TV or other thing in their house that they could do without if they really needed to.  No one is even asking you to go without such things.  I’m just trying to make the connection that $20 dollars a month towards something that is a public good, that will benefit people at large that don’t even live in Austin, although the citizens of Austin will see the most benefit, isn’t really that much to ask.  This is your chance to do something to make the world slightly better.

I have been all over Europe and Japan and most Americans have no idea how amazing good public transportation is.  It is so much less stressful than driving in bumper to bumper traffic.  You can actually enjoy yourself by reading a book, playing a game, or taking a nap.  When I used to work a day job I worked 12 miles from my home.  It would take me over an hour to get home some days.  I don’t care how good of a day I had, by the time I got home I wanted to dismember people.  Imagine if you could get on a train and read instead of do that drive.  It would make day to day life so much better.  In Japan and Europe public transportation is clean, efficient, and enjoyable.  Sitting in your car for an hour every afternoon inching your way forward is not efficient or enjoyable.  It is also ridiculously bad for our environment.

I criticize the GOP a lot on here.  I am largely criticizing the modern ultra-conservative GOP.  It is totally a fair argument to have to make sure that taxes are not spent on wasteful projects.  Even though I rarely agreed with the more moderate conservatives, I understood where they were coming from and felt that those arguments served a purpose.  The questions that conservatives and liberals should be asking is not should taxes be higher or lower, but are we getting something that makes our lives better through taxes.  If we are not then it is not worth spending money on.  If we are than it is.

The public good is always something worth spending money on.  Public transportation and parks and things of that nature, that make life more enjoyable, are worth committing resources to.  Spending billions of dollars on foreign wars in countries that are of no threat to our security are not.  Can we not see that we often spend money on all the wrong things?

I love this city and I love this country.  But we must admit that as a people we are often wasteful.  Things like Prop 1 are our chance to not only make our lives better, but to be better citizens in the world.  On one hand Prop 1 is about the kind of city we want to live in here in Austin.  But really, it is about so much more.