A Disagreement with Ta-Nehisi Coates

I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the best and brightest writers of his generation, but lately I have had a problem with his approach to politics, especially his criticisms of Bernie Sanders.  I think it was Chuck D that said that when white people face a recession, black people face a depression.  (Paraphrased)  I totally think that is the truth.  There is no doubt that black people face inequality, not only in income, but across the board when it comes to rule of law.  One can simply look at the violence directed towards black people by the police in comparison to white people.  And these things are only touching the surface.  However, I can’t help but feel that Coates addresses everything through a one issue lens, while also misunderstanding the realities of presidential politics.  I want the same end goals as Coates does, but I feel that his approach is misguided.

America made progress on a whole host of issues from Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, through the Civil Rights and other movements of the 60’s,  until the rise of Ronald Reagan.  Since Reagan the working and middle class of this country have have seen tremendous setbacks.  There is no doubt that these setbacks have affected blacks and other minorities worse than whites.  One of the truths of American power, since the Civil War, that has been more or less effective at different time periods, has been to divide and conquer.  Lower class whites and blacks, which in reality have much in common, have been pitted against each other.  (Often all too easily I’m afraid.)

Aside from rare achievements like Obamacare, which many of us on the left think didn’t go far enough, true progressive goals have been sidelined.  This is due to the Republicans ability to siphon off white working class voters.  But this is also due to the fragmented nature of the left, where each group has their pet issue, instead of uniting for the greater common good.  In a capitalist society, money is power.  Unions have been destroyed.  Healthcare still doesn’t reach enough people.  Education has been robbed of the kind of value that allows people to think critically, not only making people less intelligent politically, but preventing the kind of fluid intelligence that allows people to change jobs with changing times.  The right and left argue over culture matters.  The left is guilty of this for sure.  Instead of addressing issues that will lead to a fairer system, inequality is attacked in a series of patchwork attempts, always leaving some other hole for problems to arise.

Politics is also largely a realm of the realistic.  One can only harness energy and attention for so long.  How do you do the most good with limited energy?  What topics does one tackle first?  A president must not only try to balance the wishes of many groups simultaneously, but is also constricted through very real laws that balance the power of government between different branches.  That is how the presidency has been since the founding of our country.  The founding fathers did not create a dictatorship.

It is true that there is a need for certain kinds of extremists and dreamers in the political realm.  You need people that push the envelope, that hold those in power accountable.  I am by no means saying that these people don’t have their place.  But when this becomes the norm, I think you will see that a political party stands a very slim chance of getting anything done that will last.  There have to be those that understand the reality of law, how to get laws actually passed, etc.  As a musician, I am a dreamer.  But as a History and eventually an American Studies Major, I also know that there needs to be those in power than understand the mechanisms of government.

One of my favorite writers is George Orwell.  Orwell was a democratic socialist that was also highly critical of the utopian left.  He understood that if you wanted to raise the living of the working class, you had to get them on your side.  Orwell understood the plight of miners in Northern England, even if intellectually and culturally he was quite different.  He understood why these people had certain religious and cultural beliefs.  A certain kind of culture and education influences the way one thinks.  Attacking something someone holds dear, if it is not related to the matter at hand, especially if in all other ways they would be open to an important political goal, is foolish.  In politics, you have to be willing to meet people where they are at.

I believe that overall Sanders and Coates want the same end goal.  They both want to live in a fairer country where there is more opportunity for all people, where everyone is treated equally under the rule of law.  But Coates as been critical of Sanders for not taking up one of his explicit political causes.  If he was attacking a sitting political power I would deem what he is doing as noble and necessary to the political process.

However, in an election cycle, especially when the opposing choices are so horrendous, I can’t help but think of what he is doing is foolish.  Sanders largely shares the same goals, even if he views getting there differently.  Why, when critiquing someone, would you pick Sanders?  Coates explains this, but I just can’t agree with him.  (And anyone that thinks all politicians are the same needs to merely think how recent historical events would have played out if Gore would have won instead of Bush.  At least Bill Maher is honest enough to admit he should have not voted for Nader.  And if you don’t believe voting matters, that politicians are the same, there are probably thousands of dead Iraqis that would say differently, if only they could.)

In a perfect world there would possibly be a greater variety among the candidates.  But politics is again partially dealing with the realities of a situation.  These are the candidates that we have.  Sanders might not be checking off every box for Coates, but doesn’t he run the risk of helping to elect someone that is either completely part of the status quo, with Hillary, or someone that is actually opposed to Coates brand of politics?  This is an election cycle where certain candidates are outright demonizing minorities.  Well this might be election year B.S, I can’t help but feel that there is a dark undercurrent in the right that will actually see the light if one of the Republicans is elected.

I view income inequality and climate change as the two biggest issues of our day.  With climate change, if that isn’t addressed, all other issues may be worthless, as we might all end up sharing a world that isn’t worth living in.  There is also a clock on that issue.  We only have so long to get it right.  The Democrats are much better on that issue than the Republicans.  It is also worth saying that the poorest people in the world will be affected the most by climate change, many of them minorities.

Income inequality affects people from all races, even if it is disproportionately affecting minorities.  How long can we live in a world where 65 people hold more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion, before there is a revolution that doesn’t not happen through the comparatively peaceful channels of politics?  Sanders is the best candidate on this issue.  Again, I’m not saying his platform would go far enough in addressing all wrongs, but I think it is the platform that would do the most good for the most people.

These is not saying that there are not other issues that this country needs to address by any means.  But a candidate that can make a difference on these issues can do good for a great amount of people, including minorities.  In a year when so many things are on the line, should not those of us that share common goals, do our best to put away our differences for the time being?  I have my own personal checkbox of things I would like to see changed, but I know what is first and foremost of importance.  I’m not even arguing that Coates should not be adding to the dialog, saying certain proposals don’t go far enough.  But I find his particular criticism of the candidate closest to him to be troubling.  I just can’t help but feel Coates is doing some harm right now, along with some good, when it comes to the political future of this country.

 

 

It Ain’t a Privilege to be On TV

An album I really love is Neil Young’s Greendale.  It’s a strange album, a collection of songs that tell a story, but in a somewhat rambling fashion.  It’s Young’s way of riffing on modern culture, sometimes well within the guise of story, and sometimes using the story as just a jumping off point for Young to get across certain ideas.  Unlike most song lyrics, the lyrics are often somewhere between prose and poetry.  It almost sounds at times like Young spent a lot of time creating the backstory, learned the characters inside and out, and then when it came time to cut the songs just improvised what was running through his characters’ heads.

In the song above, one of my favorite from the album, along with the opening song and the song Bandit, Young has a line that is always with me:

It ain’t a privilege to be on TV
and it ain’t a duty either.

In our society fame seems to be a value in and of itself.  But there is nothing noble about celebrity, especially if it doesn’t stem from anything worthwhile.  One is either creating or doing something worthwhile or not.  Whether one gets known for doing that, or something that is a waste of time or a drain on society, is another thing completely.  There are things one can do to benefit, enlighten, or help other people.  One can also do things that, if not outright destructive, muddy the waters and add to the fog of ignorance.

Now this is where it gets tricky:  There are certain kinds of escapism that I think are altruistic.  In a chaotic, overstimulated world, sometimes it helps to have places one can escape their daily troubles through for a couple hours a day.  The human brain needs time to disconnect.  Also certain kinds of escapism can sometimes let ideas in the backdoor.  You might watch a fantasy movie that is mostly entertainment, but might have something to say about warfare or some other problem in the human condition as a secondary function.  But sometimes, even just a well constructed alternative universe, as long as one doesn’t spend all their time there, is a good thing to have after a hard day of work.  (Especially if murder is the alternative for letting off steam.)

Orwell argued that all art is propaganda of one kind or another.  Does a certain kind of art, or essay, or article, or whatever, have a positive function?  And I don’t mean positive in the sense of cheery.  Almost anything, even escapism, has some kind of political judgment in it, whether it is explicit or implicit.  It’s hard to judge for oneself if something has value or not. There is no easy solution.  The world is complex.  Especially when judging something someone else does, there can be a lot of gray area.

However, I think is gauging what oneself is contributing, it must be under the attempt to do something the best that one can do.  If someone is creating something just for their own glorification then one is just contributing to the ever growing ocean of bullshit that the world is drowning in.  Death and taxes are always around the corner, and one must earn a living.  But aside from that, I think if one is going to give birth to anything in this world, they should try their best to make sure it is something that is not just muddying the waters.  It is better to create nothing at all than to create something meaningless, even if that meaningless thing somehow brings about the applause of the crowd.

When I view something someone else has done, I would always rather see a noble failure than a middle of the road success.  (If those are the only two options.  I am most happy to see worthy things get their due.)  I don’t think achieving anything is all that spectacular.  It is the reaching for something grander than I find noble.

So again:

It ain’t a privilege to be on TV
And it ain’t a duty either.  

A Strange Goodbye to David Bowie

Let me tell you a story.  During Christmas break I made an album with my brother, drummer Alex Moralez, and Dave and Christine from Marah.  (They produced, engineered, and played some of the instruments.)  It was recorded in their farmhouse in rural PA.  This isn’t really a story of that record, which is yet to come.  One of the songs I demoed was called Hand Coming Down.  (The title, as the song, was changed at the last minute.)  On the demo it has a bluesy feel, sounding somewhat like some of the work Paul Westerberg has done in the last 10 yrs, but slightly spookier.  It is a one chord song, which Dave had encouraged me to write some months earlier, long before there were any plans to work together.  The thing about a one chord song is that, due to its simplicity, you can take it almost anywhere.

Through the collective will of everyone, we decided to take it in more of a European direction.  Bands like The Cure, Joy Division, and Bauhaus were mentioned.  The musical track, recorded live, but without vocals, turned infinitely more spooky and menacing.

I sang the demo version, but when it came time to cut the vocal for it, I knew my brother was the only one that could do the vibe of the song justice.  We talked, before he cut it, about going in more of a David Bowie/Iggy Pop route vocally, as all of us love the work the two of them did together in the 70’s.  My brother knocked it out of the park.

The point of this story is not to talk about the record, but to point out that here in 2016, there is still music being made that is still directly influenced by the work that Bowie did many moons back.  We all know that, and we know it will continue.  Just last year I became fully reimbursed in the recordings of Bowie’s Berlin period.  This year, I started to also reinvestigate the albums that he made with Iggy Pop.  My brother has long been a torch bearer for Bowie’s work.

And although I see the world as random, last night, as I mentioned in my previous post, I was watching a movie about Marlene Dietrich.  The documentary was called Marlene.  In it she sings a slow melancholy version of Just a Gigolo.  Bowie is in the cafe with her, dressed stylishly, sitting at a table slightly removed from the main action.  It had a dreamy resigned quality to it.  And even though I don’t believe in such things, when I heard the news today, it seemed like last night the universe was speaking to me.  It was a goodbye to someone who’s work I have loved very much over the years.  It was one of those moments that makes you question things, if only for a moment, before you realize that you should know better…

Matt Taibbi On Oregon Standoff

Matt Taibbi On Oregon Standoff

I have tried several times to write about what is going on in Oregon, only to find myself not being able to adequately convey the proper level of outrage and absurdity.  Thank heavens that Matt Taibbi is there when you need him.  Above is his take on the events over at Rolling Stone.  Every time I read an article on Ammon Bundy and the gang, I feel my brain melting down.  Even Donald Trump and the Koch brothers don’t fill me with such loathing.  Even if they see themselves as David vs. Goliath, and in terms of sheer firepower and physicality, compared to the federal government, they may be, as soon as they brought weapons into their political argument they took on the role of the bully.  They somehow represent sheer dumb force, even as they are strikingly pathetic. Sooner or later they will end up in jail or possibly dead, and unlike so many in this country, they will have brought that upon themselves.  Unwittingly these people are making a better argument for a strong government than any liberal possibly could.

Enlightenment and Alienation

I am finally free to start writing again, as I have been spending a large degree of my free time on musical projects.  As much as I want to make people aware of things I think are worthy in our culture, I want to occasionally tackle bigger fish as well.  I was thinking tonight about enlightenment.  Now I am far from enlightened my friends!  As Morrissey once sang, “It’s written all over my face.”  I still am gripped by an insane temper at times, and that is only one of my many personal and biological faults.  (We are always up against not only the world around us, but also the chemicals inside us.)  But tonight I was thinking about how enlightenment is hard, not only to achieve, but how anyone that was truly enlightened would be an outsider in our society anyhow.  Our consumerist, anxiety ridden culture doesn’t really want people to be enlightened.  Ads are not made to appeal to enlightened people.  Our political class is often the very definition of those that are ego driven.  (Donald Trump anyone?)

So the very idea of perfecting oneself is in many ways at cross purposes with fitting in to the larger culture landscape that we swim in every day.  I can’t help but think that to be enlightened is to also be alienated.  Obviously if someone was enlightened they would be at peace, but I am talking more about the process of getting there.  I am talking about how society puts up its own endless roadblocks to such a place.

In may ways I am a typical consumer.  I love to consume things, although they are usually books, movies, records, etc.  Hell, it is what I write about half the time, things.  But as I get older I also am increasingly aware that material things don’t really matter.  Sure, you don’t want to be stressed out over money.  You don’t want to be worried about survival.  You want to have some fun, to have some things to enjoy your time with.  You want to be able to travel or do things that you find interesting.  But many material things, expensive cars, mansions, are really just hymns to the the self, that in no way reflect on a person in any positive way, and may even reflect negatively, although there is no guarantee of that either.

But as I increasingly become aware of such thoughts, and others, I also find myself in an increasingly large amount of conversations with people that seem like they operating on a different planet.  Life increasingly becomes like a strange dream, where you realize society is no more than a mask for some bigger mystery.  Maybe once one is more enlightened they can help other people see this in a way that will make the world better.  But often one is stuck smiling and nodding, trying their best to be polite, while realizing the river between you is way wider than you thought.

I can’t help but feel enlightenment and alienation are two parts of the same thing.  The first is the ideal end goal.  The other is part of the journey there, but for too many the place they get stuck.  Often in the manifesto of a crazy person there will be equal parts truth and confusion.  It’s like they saw temporarily behind the mask, but instead of learning, it drove them mad.  I remember a friend once reading a book about how close saints and madmen were.  Who knows such things…

I don’t have any answers, or any points.  I am only asking you to reflect and to ponder.

Our Ancestors’ Looting and Corpse Robbing Ways

Bruce Catton’s writing on the Civil War is every bit as fascinating as its reputation.  (I have read in several places that if he is not the best writer on the war, than certainly he is one of them.)  Right now I am reading his second book in his trilogy about the Army of the Potomac, Glory Road.

It’s really interesting getting into the lesser known details of this war, that we are still dealing with the political ramifications from.  This war is a large part of our country’s DNA, even if it is something not always dealt with. I often marvel at the lack of movies and TV shows that deal with this period in comparison to something like World War II, which is much more of an easy sell, as it is one of the few wars where people can be proud of.

Because the Civil War was a war of a people, there are many moments in the war when different sides strangely put down their arms, only to resume horrible bloodshed later.  Different sides would often trade with each other.  They also made deals where they would promise not to shoot each other at night so that they could get a comfortable nights sleep.  In one instance in the book, an argument between a Confederate and a Union regiment gets so heated, that they all put down their weapons for a fist fight between two members, only to pick up their weapons and go their separate ways once the fight was settled.

But for every story like this, there are also stories of typical wartime behavior that often don’t make it into the more popular accounts we see on TV documentaries and such.  Here is a passage that deals with the looting of Fredericksburg:

“The city had been rudely sacked; household furniture lined the streets.  Books and battered pictures, bureaus, lounges, feather beds, clocks, and every conceivable article of goods, chattels, and apparel had been savagely torn from the houses and lay about in wanton confusion in all directions.  Fires were made, both for warmth and cooking, with fragments of broken furniture.  Pianos, their harmonious strings displaced, were utilized as horse troughs, and amid all the dangers animals quietly ate from them.”  A solider in another Pennsylvania regiment noted “great scenes of vandalism and useless destruction of books, furniture, carpets, pianos, pictures, etc.,” and reported a grotesque carnival aspect in the streets still swept by Confederate shell as Union soldiers cavorted about in women’s dresses and underwear.  “Some of these characters,” he added, “might be seen with musical instruments, with big horns, violins, accordions, and banjos”; and he noted that his own regiment took several hundred bottles of wine out of someone’s cellar, a part of this wine appearing later on the colonel’s own mess table.  One illiterate private rifled an express office and carried off a huge bundle of receipts and canceled checks under the impression that he was robbing a bank and getting money.

It should be noted that some of the soldiers looking upon this were horrified.  It should also be noted that this kind of behavior was not by any means only on the Union side of things.  There is a passage roughly around this one where the Confederates rob a large amount of dead Union soldiers, leaving them naked by the time they are picked up for burial.  And that is only one story.  Both sides acted in surprising ways, good and bad, at times.  Catton does go into explanations for this behavior, but I will not get into that here.

The point, or question, that I wanted to make was that this is only 150 years ago, carried out by many of our ancestors against one another.  What kind of strange blood is flowing through our National veins, inherited from this time period?

As a side note, again, I don’t know why more films and shows aren’t made of this time period. Only a small way through this book, though I have read others, and there are endless scenes that one could fashion interesting story lines around.

 

 

Americans Largely Unconcerned About Climate Change

Americans Largely Unconcerned About Climate Change

The headline story over at Huffpo today was about how Americans don’t seem to be overtly concerned about climate change.  This is exactly why the problem of climate change worries me more than any problem.  It’s the kind of problem that is going to be too late to do anything about once it affects people in a way that they can’t ignore it.  At the same time, unlike a lot of other problems, there is a definitive timeline in getting it right.  Not only has the right wing created a long running disinformation campaign to discredit climate scientists, but the problem itself is not the kind of problem that human beings seem genetically dispositioned to to deal with.  We are much better at dealing with problems that are immediate.  Especially in our culture, where short attention spans seem to be the norm, we seem to lack the ability to make changes based on our long term future.

Imagine if we could have destroyed the Nazi regime before they led millions to the gas chamber.  Would that be a worthy goal?  Millions of people are going to suffer from climate change, including our descendants.  The poorest and most vulnerable people of the world are going to suffer the worst and the suffer sooner.  Their suffering is going to increase due to our indifference on this issue.  Not only will weather become more destructive, but experts are predicting more famine and war due to climate change.

Fighting and winning World War II put the U.S. in the position of being a super power.  Wouldn’t it feel good to wave the flag again knowing that we did something that made the world better for a long time to come?  Or are we content to be thrown on the heap of history’s chumps?

 

War Makes a Mockery of a Benevolent God

The following describes how commonly held illusions were shattered by the Civil War:

Eighteen months after the first shot at Fort Sumter, there were certain truths that the soldiers had come to know.  Death in war was neither picturesque nor peaceful, and dying bravely didn’t make you any less dead, or mean that you would not be dumped into the cold earth of a mass grave with everyone else, brave and not brave.  Nor was there likely to be anyone to hear your last miserable words.  People of the era cherished the idea of a “good death” – a peaceful, dignified passing wherein God was embraced and sins repented and salvation attained, preferably in your own bed with your family gathered devotedly around to hear your last murmurs of Christian resignation.  War made a mockery of all that.  War made a mockery of the idea of a benevolent God.  It replaced the family home with the rank, powder-scorched horrors of the battlefield.  There were the new truths.  In war you lived outdoors like a wild animal.  You lived in blistering heat, drenching rains, and knifelike cold.  You were exposed and vulnerable.  The majority of men who died did not even have the honor of dying in a fight.  Two out of three were carried away by diseases that killed them just as surely as mine balls.  Those who survived did so on a quarter pound of bacon and eighteen ounces of flour a day – one-third the regular meat ration – with infrequent small issue of rice, molasses, or sugar.  (The rice ration was an ounce.)  Men lived without shoes or coats or blankets.  Food was short all over the South.  Soldiers hunted up sassafras buds and wild onions to ward off scurvy.  Horses died for lack of forage.  In Richmond, where much of the eastern army’s fare was gathered and transshipped, there were bread riots.   

The above is an excerpt from S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, the Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.

What illusions do we hold due to the relative comfort of our lives, when compared to humanity at large, both now and in history?

 

 

Where I’ve Been

Recent days have found me with my first week off (well almost a week) in many moons.  This particular post will probably only be of interest to those that have been reading along consistently.  By I felt i owed an explanation for those of you that come here often as to the slow positing rate as of late.  I’ve been catching up on things I have needed to do, on things I have ignored for too long due to travel.  I have also been writing and working on things music related.  But a good bit of the time I have been replenishing the well, diving into books, records, and films that I have been meaning to finish or check out.  This is definitely stuff I want to be doing, it’s what I enjoy.  However, as I am trying to make this a fully functional site, I also need to consume enough information that I can make this site interesting on a regular basis.

I’ve been reading S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, the Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  I think the Civil War is a period worth understanding if you want to understand many of the national issues of our day.  So many of them have their roots there.  I am trying to finish Patti Smith’s great memoir Just Kids, and because of her I finally got around to reading Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell.  I am also trying to finish Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.  I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am, a week ago and can definitely recommend it to anyone that is even slightly interested in him.  He has had a tremendous impact on our culture, even if he has never directly meant anything to you.

Musically I have been diving into the career of Big Star, as well as Chris Bell’s and Alex Chilton’s respective solo careers.  Although I had some kind of bootleg Big Star compilation growing up, and I knew many of my favorite musical artists were influenced by them, this is the first time I have truly understood their brilliance and the arc of their careers.  This is largely due to the excellent documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which is streaming on Netflix for free right now.

I am a bit obsessive compulsive about music.  As soon as I become interested in a band or artist, I tend to want to understand everything that I can about them.  With literature I try to always keep one fiction and one non-fiction book going.  I feel like reading fiction is better for songwriting and that non-fiction helps the kind of writing I do here.  I usually do not read this many books and have definitely bitten off more than I can chew!

Unlike some people who need to be forced to read anything, the opposite is true for me.  I could easily get lost down the rabbit hole of books, sometimes failing to take care of things in the real world.  But there are so many interesting things out there, and as always, so little time…

 

 

Burning Witches in 2015

They Burn Witches Here

One would think in the year 2015 that burning witches was behind the human race.  However, as this Huffington Post article goes to show, it still goes on in parts of the world.

Reason and science are why much of humanity has moved beyond such practices.  We should remember that when we make choices on how to proceed concerning a whole host of political issues.  Before one reads the article, one should think about what choices we, as a people, are making due to “belief”.  Perhaps someone far away is looking upon us in dumbstruck horror.