How Complex Should Your Argument Be?

I have written songs, blog posts, and a chapter in a book.  Many political issues are complex shades of gray,  although many want to reduce them to black and white.  In order to sway people to your favor should your writing be closer to a well formed argument that takes in different ideas and acknowledges that complexity, or should aim for propaganda that elicits attention to your cause?  Of course some of that depends on your aims, but I also think the form matters. 

If you are writing a book or a long form magazine article, you have the space to measure and weigh all the nuances of an issue.  While proving your point you can take the time to acknowledge the complexity of the situation you are dealing with. 

In a blog, which you want people to be able to read at any point in their busy day to day lives, I used to read blogs between calls at work, I feel that you have less space.  I feel as though you may want to acknowledge the complexity of a certain issue, it is better to provoke people to become interested in a topic, and then get them to think and follow up on their own.

In a pop song, which is usually no more than a few minutes, with some of those precious minutes giving time for the music itself, you should write as close to propaganda as possible.  Say something bold and immediate that cannot be overlooked.  You want something that jumps out of the speakers and grabs people by the throat.  Music is meant to be emotional and you should aim to create strong emotions whatever they may be.  Although clearly modern radio would disagree, I still believe it is important to ask of an artist the question, “What do you have to say?”  If someone is interested enough in an artist’s possibly nuanced position, they can spend the time to find out.  In music I love those artists that piss lightning and crap thunder.  Did I just quote Mick from Rocky? 

Pity Our Enemies

I finally finished reading Borstal Boy.   In the afterward Benedict Kiely writes about what made Behan so special.   Kiely knew Behan and at the time was teaching Borstal Boy  to female students at a college in Virginia.  If only we could all be more like this:

They were, not surprisingly, impressed by words not customarily in use in respectable American homes: but much more they were impressed by the author’s vast and obvious humanity, by his humorous acceptance,  his abounding life and love of life.  His people, from the roughest screw (prison officer) in Walton to the gentlest boy in the open prison camp by the North Sea (and with the possible exception of the R.C. Chaplain who, quite without authority, cut him off from the sacraments), are almost all looked upon with sympathy, or, at any rate, with a sort of pity (“for very oft we pity our enemies”), or with defensive enmity that becomes perverted brotherhood.  You feel that if the worst of them had met him elsewhere,  and under less claustrophobic circumstances,  the unpleasant things might not have happened.  

Borstal Boy  is an account of Behan’s time in prison and reform school as a young prisoner.

Brendan Behan on Religion

This passage was written by Irish writer Brendan Behan and it is from the book Borstal Boy.   A borstal is a reform school for underage prisoners as an alternative to prison.  Walton is a jail in Liverpool that Behan was in before being moved to his reform school.  He was imprisoned for being caught in Liverpool with bombs as an I.R.A. member.  Because he would not renounce the I.R.A. he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.  However, while at reform school he was allowed to serve Mass because he could read Latin, despite not being able to receive the Sacraments.   This passage is his reflection on religion right before he is about to serve Mass:

But I wasn’t bitter.  When I am in good humor, I could not be bitter about anything.  It was different in Liverpool, where the priest was an active enemy.  Here the priest had nothing to do with me, and I nearly lost interest in Sacraments,  and whether I was deprived of them or not.  Walton scalded my heart with regard to my religion, but it also lightened it.  My sins had fallen from me, because I had almost forgotten that there were such things and, when I got over it, my expulsion from religion, it was like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back.  If I was willing to serve Mass, it was in memory of my ancestors standing around a rock, in a lonely glen, for fear of the landlords and their yeomen, or sneaking through a back – lane in Dublin, and giving the password,  to hear Mass in a slum public house, when a priest’s head was worth five pounds and an Irish Catholic had no existence in law. 

There were few Catholics in this part of the world and the priest had a forlorn sort of a job but Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love. 

English Catholics had no time for the Irish, except when they were begging from them.  They had no use for Paddy the navvy and Biddy the scivvy,  beyond taking their money when a new church was being built.  The aristocratic old English Catholics had some kind of double dealt immunity from the penal laws, and the conversions only started when the Irish got the Emancipation and it became legal and safe to be a Catholic,  and a lot of English shopkeepers’ sons gave up Methodist and became Catholics because the more romantic minded of them thought it brought them into contact with the great world of Italy and France, which was atheist or Catholic, but always lively. 

One of the fascinating things about Behan, from reading this book, is how open minded he is.  Even at a young age he is able to see the difference between the British Empire as a system and the English people, as many of his friends in prison and reform school are English.  He was able to have a disdain for religion but feel for a priest with a forlorn job.  He could be against a system, but treat people within that system as individuals.  He had a great mind.  I now understand why so many writers and songwriters remember him fondly. 

Kinski on Herzog

He should be thrown alive to the crocodiles! An anaconda should strangle him slowly! A poisonous spider should sting him and paralyze his lungs! The most venomous serpent should bite him and make his brain explode! No — panther claws should rip open his throat — that would be much too good for him! Huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes and gobble up his balls and his guts! He should catch the plague! Syphilis! Yellow fever! Leprosy! It’s no use; the more I wish him the most gruesome deaths, the more he haunts me – Klaus Kinski on Werner Herzog

One of the greatest directors of all time is Werner Herzog.  Whether making documentaries or feature films his movies are full of original ideas and images.  When you watch one of his films you are guaranteed to see something you have never seen before.  His films are often filled with ecstatic fever dream imagery.  Even his documentaries allow you to experience the world in a new way. 

Over the course of his career Herzog made five feature films with volatile actor Klaus Kinski.  A completely insane and often hilarious film is the director’s documentary on Kinski, My Best Fiend

The above quote is from Kinski’s autobiography Kinski Uncut, which is also known as All I Need is Love.  It is probably the most perverse and batshit book I have ever read.  It was as if he was daring the world to hate him. 

In the movie My Best Fiend Herzog claims that he and Kinski sat around trying to think of the most vile terms to describe the director in.  The above quote always provides me with a good laugh when I need it. 

Great Lyricists At the End of the World

One of the best rock n roll books I’ve ever read is Bill Flanagan’s U2: At the End of the World.  The book is written as Flanagan follows U2 on their groundbreaking Zoo TV tour.  However, the fact that the book is about U2 is almost secondary to the enjoyment of the book.  Flanagan is a first class writer and in using U2 as a jumping off point he dives into music criticism, politics, history, the music business, famous writers, and a whole host of other topics.  Even if you are indifferent to U2 you would probably find this a fascinating read if you are interested in music and a wide range of topics. 

There is a passage in the book, which I could not find this Saturday morning, where they talk about lyricists.  Bono, full of the blarney as always, makes the claim that Jewish people are the best lyricist.  He lists Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, among others, as examples.  He also talks about how there is a strain of Judaism that looks for the truth wherever it leads someone.  Bono makes a pretty good case for his point, and then Flanagan decides to call Randy Newman, a great lyricist who is also Jewish.  Newman brings up the Neil Young as one example of a great lyricist that isn’t Jewish.  Anyway, after all of them debate they decide that great lyricists come from many walks of life.  What they do decide though is that white American Christian males usually don’t make the best lyricists.  It pays to be an “outsider.” 

This book is full of all kinds of political, historical, and musical debates and ideas.  Reading this book is like having a great bullshitting session at a pub with a bunch of curious and intelligent people.    

Good and Bad Film Adaptations

When translating a book into a movie I think it is much more important that the spirit of the book is translated than the actual literal story.  Right now I am reading the book version of the new Scarlett Johansson film Under the Skin.  Although the very basics of the story are similar so far, a female alien in the guise of a human drives around through Scotland picking up hitchhikers, much of it is different.  However, they both create a similar mood.  (And I admit that I am only partially through the book.)  There is a sort of contemplative melancholy to both, although both occasionally feature very subtle dry humor. 

In the book the main character is sort of bizarre looking, aside from her large breasts that keep being mentioned.  In the film Scarlett Johansson is a femme fatale whose beauty lures men to their doom.  There are also differences in the story itself.  In the movie she takes the men to a house and in the book it is a farm.  However, again the emotional feel of both is very similar.  In that way I feel the movie is true to the book while being something unique and worthwhile in its own right. 

Meanwhile, despite I know a lot of people loving it; I did not enjoy the movie No Country for Old Men.  Had I never read the book I feel that I might have.  However, I felt the movie, while being a faithful adaptation in terms of story and character, was simply a visual retelling of the book without the inner dialogue that made the book so fascinating. It was too literal of an adaptation.  But that emotional truth, the kind that is represented by the inner thoughts of the characters, seemed lacking to me. 

There is not necessarily a right way and a wrong way to adapt books to film.  However, I definitely lean towards the idea that it is much more important to get the emotional content of an adaptation right than to literally retell the story.  Movies can never be books.  However, I am satisfied if I walk out of a movie feeling the same way I did after reading something I liked, whether or not the story is the same. 

The Mutant Koch Brothers

The above link is to a Huffpo article about an upcoming book about the Koch brothers.  It is by Daniel Schulman and it is called Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.  Apparently the Koch brothers, who are doing their best to ruin American democracy, are also complete emotional mutants as well.  No surprise there.  Why do we let such animals have so much power?  Here is an excerpt where their dad has them fight each other growing up:

In private, Fred Koch “ruled the house with an iron fist” and faith in social Darwinism. Schulman recounts how the former boxer encouraged his sons to fight each other, sometimes with horrifying results. “During one bout, Bill bashed his twin over the head with a polo mallet,” Schulman writes. And “David still bears a scar from the time Bill pierced him in the back with a ceremonial sword.” Those early lessons left a deep imprint on the brothers.

They also like to blackmail each other:

Schulman describes how Charles, unable to convince brother Frederick to sell his stake in Koch Industries, allegedly resorted to “a homosexual blackmail attempt to force Frederick to sell his shares.” And when the youngest twin, Bill, launched a bid to wrest control of Koch Industries from his older brothers, Charles’ legal team responded by releasing a dossier of opposition research on Bill, filled with sordid details of his personal life.

Who needs the fantasy of the Walking Dead when you have these freaks running amuck through our land.  Anyone that blackmails their brother or pierces someone with a ceremonial sword should be locked up.  Instead, they are running our country!

P.S.  If poor people acted like that they would crucify them!


Amazon Squeezes Competition

Well I am on the road I have tried to link to a couple interesting articles that I have read.  I am pretty impressed with the Salon app I downloaded.  Their writing seems to be of pretty high quality.  This article is about amazon using its large market share to squeeze competition.  I admit that I use Amazon quite a bit due to their cheap prices and the fact that a Kindle is great on the road.  However, I am well aware that in a capitalist society you vote with your dollar.  Maybe it is time to vote for someone else on a more regular basis?

Amazon takes shot at Colbert, Gladwell in bitter publishing war via @Salon

George R.R. Martin Interview

A thoughtful interview with George R.R. Martin, the writer of The Song of Fire and Ice series more wildly know as Game of Thrones. (The title of the first book and of the TV series that the series is based on.  I thought his comments on history and on the complex nature of man were particularly interesting.  I’ve read all of the books and caught up on the series when I was home last week.  I need the next book to come out!