Show Tonight and The Fruits of Debate

John T. Floore’s Country Store Calander

Tonight Shinyribs will be playing at John T. Floore’s Country Store outside of San Antonio.  You can get tickets at the above link.  We will be there much earlier than showtime, so if you are in the area come out and shoot the shit.  I am happy to discuss anything and everything I write about here, even if you disagree.

In reading about the 1800’s I am realizing how much public debate was part of the landscape then.  People would debate for hours on various political topics.  People in general were much more involved in the political process as a whole, as least the people that were allowed to be.  (AKA white males)  Well we don’t want to return to those times by any stretch of the imagination, it would be great if there was more real debate in this country and not just people sloganeering and spinning from both sides.

I played a show last month where I made a bunch of political comments.  Afterwards a gentleman came up to me and said that while he was on the opposite side from me, he was happy to see someone actually saying something.  We then had a good talk about some of the issues.  I think that kind of thing is healthy.  Politics is compromise.  It is winning inch by inch.  Sweeping change is rare.  Although I would love to see sweeping change right now, I know that a slow grind is the only way the mountaintop of progress can be reached.

Many of those in power don’t want ideas being shared, they don’t want critical thinking, and they definitely don’t want real and open debate.  Rebel and talk to each other.  Express your opinions.  There are always going to be some people that you just can’t reach, but you never know.

How Do We Form a More Perfect Union?

I am very disillusioned with the state of our country right now.  Ever since the election, I have been trying to figure out how people could elect those that don’t have the well being of the average citizen in mind.  Instead of stewing over the loss, I tried to educate myself.  My intuition told me to start with slavery and the Civil War, as this is a period of American history that is still affecting how we think today in terms of our regional and cultural divides.

While I was thinking about all of this I had the opportunity to go to Australia.  I want to share some facts with you about Australia:

1.  By law they get 28 days of paid time off each year.

2.  Healthcare, although it is slightly more complicated than this, is basically free.

3.  Minimum wage is 17 dollars an hour.

4.  If someone is without a job or homeless they get a stipend.  It’s like unemployment that never runs out.

5.  They have clean and plentiful public transportation.

Those are all facts.  However, here are some personal observations that I made:

1.  The cities that I was in were very clean.

2.  The people were almost all friendly and helpful.

3.  Most of the people looked in relatively good shape.

4.  I saw no large-scale poverty.  In fact, while walking many days through a city twice the size of Austin, I never saw one homeless person.  (I’m not saying that they don’t exist, only that they exist in much lower numbers than they do in American cities.)

5.  The cities that I saw were vibrant and modern.

I know that Australia has its problems.  Right now they are having immigration issues for instance.  However, they seem to do a much better job at taking care of their citizens than we do.  I can imagine that just having 28 paid days off each year while living in a nice climate would alone make life more livable.

So how is it that a country that was started partially by criminals can be doing things so much better than a so-called Christian nation?  To answer this would require a book.  Although I intend to come back to this question, I am not going to answer it here.

The whole time I was there I was again reading about slavery and the Civil War.  What I found troubling was that so many of the arguments that were used to protect slavery are still used today to protect powerful economic interests.  Often progress in this country is stopped by arguments over states rights, religion, and economics.  We can’t pass a certain law that would benefit people because it would:

A. Infringe upon states rights
B. Would force people to go against their religion
C. It would hurt the economy

These are the same kinds of things that again were used to protect slavery.  In cases A. and B. these are the exact same arguments.  Although there were many people that were anti-slavery from a religious standpoint, there were also many that used religion to justify slavery.

During slavery education on average in the South was far behind the North.  In the present economic power is doing what it can to strip critical thinking from education.  This is not a North/South thing, although there is some of that going on if you look at recent election results.  However, I can take you to places that are backwards in my home state of Pennsylvania, while my current home of Austin is quite progressive in a lot of ways.

It’s just that as I dig deeper and deeper into the well I find myself more discouraged at the state of our country, not less.  Especially when you look at someplace like Australia in comparison, you realize that there is no reason that we couldn’t be doing a better job of helping the less fortunate.  It’s out there in the world, being done, right now as we speak.

***

Often when I have looked at the war in Afghanistan I see it as almost science fiction.  It’s like people from the present are fighting people from the past.  That is not to say that I believe we are right to still be there, only that if you look at the technology and education of the United States against somewhere like the mountains of Afghanistan, which are still tribal, I think it is a fair way to look at things.

After visiting Australia and reading about our history I can’t wonder if our own country is still fighting culturally outside of space and time.  Are there not places that still have the mentality of the 1950’s arguing against people from the present?

All of this raises more questions than answers.  But that is where I’m at.  How did we get to where we are at and how can we make it better?  Can we make it better with entrenched economic powers that need to keep people ignorant to achieve their goals?

In one sense there has been a lot of progress in our country.  I don’t think anyone but the Ku Klux Klan wants to go back to the days of slavery or Reconstruction.  However, we are not where we need to be.  We need to stop thinking that we’re number one at everything and realize that there are other places out there that have some of the answers.  We have to confront our history so that we can recognize the problems of the present.  There is no shame in realizing you can do better then you are, getting up, and trying again.  Shame is only for those that quit.  When and where do we start?

12 Years a Slave Review

12-years-slave-poster

12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power.  It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time.  Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does.  This is not a film that gets by on good intentions.  It is a tour de force for all involved.

The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North.  He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses.  It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell.  We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.

I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter.  There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results.  Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us.  In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.

The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master.  The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit.  The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story.  There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes.  There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing.  For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth.  And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head.  The score is almost minimal.  Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on.  Often films will try to manipulate you with their score.  I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.

Every actor in this film brings their A game.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face.  Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature.   Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.

This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy.  Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history.  This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors.  It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world.  In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists.  He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.

Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history.  I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time.  He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped.  Children!  And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.

When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront.  Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible.  Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion.  Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.

This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion.  The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring.  Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.

If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table.  However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present.  While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface.  I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.

Inequality, Slavery, and Declining Quality of Life

I have never found it hard to believe that as inequality in wealth grows, the general quality of life for everyone, rich and poor inversely declines.  Today I was reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and read a comparison between North and South, during slavery.  This part of the book was about William Henry Seward,  who was in Lincoln’s cabinet.  I should mention that Seward had no ill feelings for the South before his trip, and was actually looking forward to traveling, only to cut his trip short:

At the time of their journey,  three decades of immigration,  commercial enterprise, and industrial production had invigorated Northern society,  creating thriving cities and towns.  The historian Kenneth Stampp well describes how the North of this period “teemed with bustling, restless men and women who believed passionately in ‘progress’ and equated it with growth and change;  the air was filled with excitement of intellectual ferment and with the schemes of entrepreneurs;  and the land was honeycombed with societies aiming at nothing less than the total reform of mankind. “

Yet, crossing into Virginia, the Sewards entered a world virtually unchanged since 1800.  “We no longer passed frequent farm-houses,  taverns, and shops,” Henry wrote as the family carriage wound its way through Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, “but our rough road conducted us…[past] low log-huts, the habitations of slaves.”  They rarely encountered other travelers, finding instead “a waste, broken tract of land, with here and there and old decaying habitation.”  Seward lamented:  “How deeply the curse of slavery is set upon this venerated and storied region of the old dominion.  Of all the countries I have seen France only whose energies have for forty years been expended in war and whose population has been more decimated by the sword is as much decayed as Virginia.”

I wanted to use this as an example as slavery is as unequal an economic system as one can have.  However, at this point in our history the inequality between rich and poor is growing.  Despite this, rich people,  as well as poor obviously, are very uneasy.  Our country is becoming less of a harmonious community. 

Meanwhile, being in Australia, which certainly has its own problems, one notices how at least in the city, where more people make a living wage and are taken care of by a larger social safety net than in the US, that the quality of life is quite high.  Despite walking for about five hours through various parts of the city yesterday, I saw not one homeless person. 

This is obviously a personal observation, but history and data seem to back it up.  The country does best overall economically when there is a thriving middle class that can purchase goods.  Why so many can’t seem to grasp this I don’t understand.  

The Civil War and Movies

As any of you that have been reading along know, the last two weeks I have been interested in the Civil War.  Last night I watched Lincoln.  It was the second time I have seen it and it is really an extraordinary film.  Although there are a few scenes that seem a little too symbolic, and because of this aren’t believable as reality, overall it is really well done.  Maybe its best attribute is it really makes one think about the nature of politics.

Anyway, I wanted to watch another movie on that time period tonight.  I was doing an internet search and the truth is there are very few excellent movies that deal in that historical period.  I find that very strange.  Is that because we are afraid of really exploring a war in which half of the country was on the wrong side of justice?  Is it just that it is too long ago and, unlike World War II and Vietnam, we are too far removed from it?

It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that in order to understand modern America, one must be able to have some understanding of what happened during that time period.  Works of drama are more accessible than most history.  Good dramatizations can also often bring out certain truths, even if they contains slight elements of fiction, in ways that documentaries or even history books cannot.  They can connect people emotionally to something they might not otherwise understand or be interested in.

Ken Burn’s The Civil War and Thinking Critically

center_03

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.

The Past is Not Past

I spent most of the day either at rehearsal or learning about Stonewall Jackson.  S.C. Gwynne has written another captivating book.  I’m not far enough into it to feel that I can talk about it, but there is no question that Jackson was a “unique” individual.  Today was one of those days that slipped through my grasp.  One minute I’m drinking coffee and the next the sun is going down.

After this recent election, which seems to defy reason, I have been looking for answers about our current political climate in our history and culture.  How did we arrive at this moment in time?  Take climate change for instance, something for which Obama just made a great step forward with his deal with China.  (I am still reading up on our deal with China for more specifics.)  The fact that climate change is occurring is scientific fact.  There is some uncertainty as to the exact outcome, but don’t get confused by the word uncertainty.  Think about if a large rainstorm came in.  You know that the ground will be soaked, but you can’t say for certain if the big oak tree out front is going to fall over.  That however, doesn’t mean it is not raining.  Anyway, so science and all reason point to climate change happening, yet not only does a portion of the populace not believe it is real, but we have elected officials that are not scientists, that claim they know more than scientists, going to be in charge of parts of our environmental policy.

Now there is no doubt that these people are for the most part bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.  You don’t have to be Columbo to deduce that.  You also don’t have to be Columbo to figure out that the regions with the most jobs in the fossil fuel industry are also the regions that are most against us doing anything about climate change.  Yet I don’t think it is as simple as a mere question of economics.

From the very beginning of our country there is an element that is against any kind of centralized authority.  Part of our country also puts faith above reason.  I just read in the Stonewall Jackson book last night that in 1850 Florida only had 85,000 inhabitants and half of them were slaves.  It is hard to imagine that modern Florida, with Disney World and Miami and the countless beach resorts, was created in 164 years, which is the lifespan of two humans.  Go to Miami and think about how two lives ago it was a desolate swamp.  As far as civilization goes our country is but a baby.

I am still thinking about all of this myself.  I wanted to ask those of you that read this a rhetorical question.  How does our unique American history and culture affect the way in which we think politically?  Places that were settled by different ethnic and religious groups often ended up quite different.  Places that had to subdue the land and keep people oppressed often ended up quite different than places that were booming with industry.  All of these things factor into who we are now.  How so?