Language, Red Necks, and Culture

If you go into a really conservative part of the Bible Belt, you will see that fear, guilt, and shame run rampant.  Of course I am painting with a wide brush, because no area is monolithic.   However, as a generalization, this rings pretty true.  These feelings that I listed are the results of years of religious and cultural repression. 

Have you ever played whack-a-mole?  It is the game where you hit moles that pop up with a mallet.  As soon as you hit that mole, another one is popping up somewhere else.  You can suppress some human emotions, but other ones will come out in their place.  When people in these regions are suppressed,  or oppressed,  because of various institutions, I believe it leads to a lot of the strange behavior that we see in this country.  They are so obsessed with people’s sexual orientation, because their own sex lives have been burdened with so much guilt and shame. 

That’s not to say there aren’t good people in these regions.  Often, these people are super generous and kind, even more than some liberals can be.  The problem is this generosity only usually extends to those that are part of their community or tribe. 

One of the great problems of the modern age is that we are in an increasingly interconnected world that faces global problems, but this local and tribal outlook still exists.  The world has become interconnected faster than societies can adapt. 

One of my favorite history books is Empire of the Summer Moon.  It is largely about the Comanche Indian Wars in Texas.  In the earlier days, before the six shooter was introduced, surviving as a Texas Ranger was almost like natural selection.  Only the toughest and best survived.  Why Am I talking about this?  Because the bravado that is so prevalent in Texas, I believe, comes out of this period.  At one point you had to bold and tough to survive. 

But the world changed so much in the last 150 odd years this trait, which was once a necessity for survival, is now an impediment to our country.  150 years ago isn’t that long ago.  It is my great grandparents.  In the late 1800’s people didn’t even know what existed at the north pole.  Now we can see into the farthest reaches of space.  The world has moved on, but a large part of our culture has not. 

If we are going to overcome the challenges of this century we need to change culturally.   This is not an easy thing to do.  Especially when people are struggling, they cling to their culture and identity as a way to keep their bearings. 

George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, wrote a critique of socialism.  However , he was a socialist.  He just realized that in order to get people interested in socialism you had to meet people where they were at.  He saw many on the left as being too academic, in the sense that they were talking about a belief he shared in ways that would never reach the average person who would benefit from these beliefs. 

In order to reach more people Democrats and liberals need to think about the language that is used.  Frank Luntz, a completely vile Republican pollster, has realized this.  For instance, people that were for the estate tax were much less likely to support the death tax, when they are the same exact thing.  But people were more willing to tax a rich person’s estate than to tax someone for dying.  Only the language had changed. 

Mark Twain once said that, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.”  The left needs to start with something as basic as language if there is any real hope for progress in the future. 

The reason I view Frank Luntz as vile is because he uses his talent to muddy the waters. He is only interested in his own financial interests and of keeping those in power who don’t have the best interest of people at heart. You can use language to either distort the truth or to shine a light on it. He does the former.

The Essence of Being Human

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.  - George Orwell in Reflections on Gandhi

Comic Radicals on the Left

I give the right a lot of shit on this blog.  I don’t feel guilty about it as the new right is batshit crazy.  However, there are those on the left that are figures of fun as well.  Even those that I agree with politically can often feel like another species when confronted with face to face.

One time when I was looking for a part time job to supplement my music career, I applied at Green Peace. (I want to say that I have no problem with Green Peace.  This story focuses on one particular office, although that office was typical of some other left wing organizations I have been to.)  First of all I wore a suit and tie to the interview, because it was an INTERVIEW.  I am someone that only wears ties to interviews, weddings, and funerals.  Most of the people looked at me like I was in the FBI when I walked through the door.  I instantly felt like I was in the Man in the presence of a bunch of radicals, even though my politics are in many ways as far left as Green Peace.  But these were very comical radicals as they all looked like they were trying to outdo each other in the how poorly they were dressed category.  I’m a jeans and t-shirt guy 99% of the time.  But they looked like they were having a contest to show how much they did not live by societies standards.  I’m talking sweaters with holes in them and jeans that were more ill-fitting than the jeans I have seen on homeless people.

The boss was the same, and yet somehow different.  He looked like a coffee house communist intellectual.  High and tight haircut, ratty sweater, thick 1950’s looking glasses, and an overly serious expression on his face.  In fact I don’t remember him smiling the whole time.  And this was a group interview, so even if he didn’t like my shit, he should have liked someone!

We were interviewed in a circle.  Questions that I had mentally prepared for, like why I would be good at this job, were never asked.  (If I had been asked I could have told them that I grew up with an environmentalist Dad talking over those issues nightly, I believed in Green Peace’s policies, and I had experience raising money, which is what the job was for.)  But we were asked who our political heroes were.  Not expecting that question I said Robert Kennedy off the top of my head, as most of my political heroes are people that are writers or artists.  I said this not because I am not aware of some of the earlier ill informed policies that Kennedy had supported, but because he was someone that was smart enough to evolve and change and become more progressive as he grew older.  Wrong answer!  I should have said Gandhi like the office boss.  Is there any more easy typical self-righteous answer that you could give than Gandhi?  Plus, Gandhi, for however great he was on so many things, had some pretty backwards ideas about women.  So clearly this intellectual wasn’t as smart as he thought.  His answer was no less complicated than mine, he just didn’t know it.

Anyway, I didn’t get the job as I clearly didn’t pass the holier-than-thou interrogation.  The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.  It was like a contest between people to show how righteous they were.  Even worse than this righteousness was a complete lack of any humor.  If you are going to take a hard look at the injustice of the world you need a sense of humor.  Not only because you need it as a shield against the insanity that is out there, not only because it will endear you to people that otherwise might turn away from your beliefs, but because there is so much absurdity out there, that the horrible is often outright funny.  These people, clearly without knowing it, were the exact kind of people that give the left a bad name.  Someone like that office boss was going to turn as many people off to his cause as he was going to turn on, if he ever interacted with the public at large.

George Orwell, who believed in socialism, spent a great deal of his time criticizing the left, exactly because of people like this person.  Orwell believed in the ideas of the left, but he was highly critical of how people went about trying to implement them.

That day was dispiriting.  We both wanted to “save the planet”, but if we succeeded, I was glad it was big enough that I would never have to see that fool again.

 

Writing Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

ORWELL

I just started reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  I’m not very far into it.  It’s clear that she has a laser-like mind that is an excellent bullshit detector.  However, one thing that actually surprised me is how simple her writing is.  The ideas inherent in her work are complex, but they are delivered clearly and directly.  Occasionally she will use a German or Jewish word without explanation, and you would need to have at least a basic level of history, but aside from that her work is very easy to read.  It might not be as direct as Orwell, few are, but it’s not far behind. So many times really intelligent academics use language that is impenetrable to anyone outside of their field.  Sometimes, as having written a peer reviewed chapter in a book myself, the form dictates such language.  Often however, I think this is due to the individuals either inability to write clearly, just because you are a genius in biology does not make you a great writer, or because whoever has been in their field so long that they forget that most people don’t understand the basics of what they are talking about. But if you again read someone like Orwell, who said to never use a big word where a small one will do, you understand that extremely complex and powerful ideas can be conveyed with the simplest of language.  If you are writing poetry or some kind of fictional prose that has a poetic element to it, then I understand trying to be flowery with language.  However, if the main purpose of your writing is to convey some kind of idea, then there is simply no need to further complicate things with the kind of language that is used.  In the worst case scenario you are extremely limiting the amount of people that can understand the ideas inherit in your work, and in the best case, you are just simply boring the shit out of someone while they try to grasp whatever it is you are saying.

Literature as Propaganda

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/06/why-the-cia-distributed-pocket-size-copies-of-doctor-zhivago-in-the-soviet-union/371369/

The above article is about how governments, The United States and The Soviet Union in this case particularly, viewed literature as a powerful tool for propaganda.  This story focuses on Doctor Zhivago and how the CIA had it distributed within The Soviet Union.  I always have felt that if more people read, and spent less time watching the brain deadening junk that is mainstream television, that this country would be better off.  Not a bold or original though I know, but most likely true.  

There is a really great book by George Orwell called All Art is Propaganda.  In the book Orwell uses literary criticism as a jumping off point to tackle larger ideas concerning politics and society.  It is a fascinating read that I highly recommend.  

As the review on amazon.com says:  All Art Is Propaganda follows Orwell as he demonstrates in piece after piece how intent analysis of a work or body of work gives rise to trenchant aesthetic and philosophical commentary.

Changing the Future and Redeeming the Past

I cannot stop thinking about The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology starring Slavoj Zizek.  It’s such a fascinating intelligent film.  Even if you don’t agree with some of his ideas, this film will make you think.  I will admit that this film is not for everyone.  Although he talks about subjects like philosophy and other topics in an incredibly accessible way, this movie is still pretty intellectual.  He uses films to dive into big ideas surrounding our culture.  However, if you are open minded and hungry for new ideas, you can’t go wrong with this film.

One of the interesting points he makes is how revolutions not only can change the future, but also redeem the past.  Revolutions, even ones that fail, leave a lingering energy around.  I am going to use the example of the Spanish Civil War as documented by George Orwell in his incredible Homage to Catalonia.  In the book Orwell sees a socialist revolution that actually works for a little while, until it is eventually crushed by Franco’s regime.  On one hand you could say that the revolution failed.  On the other, you could say that in living on in Orwell’s book and other places, it still provides inspiration for people.  The ideas from that revolution are still out there floating in the ether.  So any progressive revolution that happens will not only make a different future, but will also redeem that revolution and others like it that still lingers in people’s minds.

I think this can also be used to talk about political songs.  In some ways we can look at the protest songs of the 60’s as having failed.  Although they might have succeeded in helping along certain things like Civil Rights, it is pretty clear that there was no large lasting leftwing movement that came out of the 60’s in any real sense.  Although certain aspects of our society are more tolerant, our country is still pretty centrist as a whole, especially compared to Northern European countries.  In fact economically we have moved to the right.  One only has to look at the politics of Richard Nixon compared to the politics of our current right wing.  However, those songs continue to inspire people to this day.  You could see 60’s anthems as having an influence on Occupy Wall Street.  The Occupy movement may have fizzled, but the next time people try to take on the entrenched economic power I would bet anything that these anthems are somewhere in the mix.

Even if you sing something or write something and it doesn’t have the desired political effect, it is still worth the effort.  You may not see the promise land, but someone that you inspire years down the road may reach it for you.

Solidary/Solitary

Spoiler alert for The Artist at Work by Camus.  

One of my favorite authors is Camus.  I love his short story collection Exile and the Kingdom, among other works.  In the story The Artist at Work we follow the life of an artist as he becomes more and more removed from his family as he tries to create a painting.  The story ends with the artist creating a painting that is only a blank canvas, where it is impossible to tell if the word on the canvas is solidary or solitary.  Should his artistic responsibility be to go into his own inner world and create something or should his responsibility as a human being be to those people around him?

This is a common dilemma among creative people.  Should you put everything into your work or at some point do you just start progressing up your own arse?  Or as they say in Spinal Tap, “There is a fine line between the clever and the stupid.”

George Orwell said that, “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”  When I am on the road there are times when I feel guilty about not being around to take care of my dog or not being there for a friend’s birthday party or whatever.  There are also times when I would prefer to sit around and write or play music when I should be out at someone’s event.  One wouldn’t even need to be any kind of artist to feel these feelings.  Anyone that might have a job that takes up too much time will probably feel this kind of thing from time to time.

A job, given there is some benefit to others in it, or a piece of art, may make many other people happy.  However, at the same time it may make those closest to you miserable from time to time.  Jackson Pollock was horrible to many people around him, but his work will live on for a long time.  Was it worth those people suffering so that he could create something that many other people would appreciate?  That is an extreme example, as most people can find some balance of the two.  However, because life is finite, I think it is normal to feel that in not having infinite time you are going to let someone down.

So how do you solve this problem?  Is there an answer?  I think not, only a series of questions that humanity will have to ask for as long as we’re around.