Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Before I go on, I want to be clear. I am not seeking to reduce, demean, or otherwise ignore feelings provoked by what I'm calling "slights." The feelings and sensations are real. Feelings and sensations provoked by slights can sometimes be intense, disabling and painful. I am not arguing that "sometimes you just gotta suck it up." To do so would be too much of a rationalization for not doing anything and for not investigating further. I find the term's appeal itself fascinating.
I find "microaggression" to be a stunning confirmation and explanation of one of Nietzsche's seemingly throw away remarks in Toward a Genealogy of Morals about what slaves hate in their masters is their casual indifference to the suffering and unhappiness in their slaves. The image conjured by "microaggression" is incomplete without (secretly) implying and postulating evil intent in microaggressors. Even if this "secret evil intent" is explicitly disavowed.
Why am I uncomfortable with the term? It is misleading. The concept of aggression even on a micro scale is too vigorous for what it refers to. Every example of microaggression that I've seen is just as easily explainable as a product of ignorance, lazy habit and limited capacity for empathy. It is far and away the exception when slights are used to consciously and purposely belittle and demean someone. There is another well known term for such behavior: abuse.
But in America today it is all about who's the "real" victim. The more innocent and undeserving the recipient of a harm the stronger the claim to being a "real" victim. Preaching against laziness and ignorance does not fill pews, as it were. Self-examination (critical or otherwise) is too closely associated with guilt for my countrymen to engage in with anything approaching useful. There is no time to consider the possibility of error or to remind oneself that every opinion (even the religious ones) has its limits. Again, it's easier play at being the victim than it is to actually get at the roots of social problems.
* * *
The term's appeal fascinates me. I find myself reaching back to undergraduate courses on Wittgenstein to get at the relation between thinking and language. And to the odd remarks I've encountered over the years about metaphors and thinking leading in turn to Nietzsche's penchant for striking and original metaphors in his philosophy.
I keep circling around how "equality" is used in everyday speech and in political opinionating. My own political biases tend toward the left. I've read way too much Nietzsche for way too long to be at ease with Social Justice based on appeals to Fairness and Justice. I'm not clear to myself about my unease with social and political equality as an ideal. Maybe it's a question of not being clear on the concept. There are no doubt many ways of thinking about Equality and Justice, failing to separate these different ways of thinking leads to confusion. Part of it is what am I after? What's my problem? There seem to be two swarms of issues: one buzzing around "what are Equality and Justice?" and the other around "Why do people want Justice and Equality? What is behind the irresistibly hypnotic charm of Equality and Justice?"
It is my typical experience to flounder about in my ignorance. When I am perplexed like this, I do not know what questions to ask. If I were able to set boundaries to my ignorance with a question, it would be a simple matter to get answers or at least determine that the question is unanswerable.
My primary criterion for evaluating my understanding of something is one I picked up in grade school. Can I explain a concept in my own words without using the conventional terminology and phrases? What I have found to be true much more often than not is that when I am not I find myself trapped in a circle of words each defined in terms of one another with only rote connections to the world at large. We've all had the experience of looking up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary only to find another unfamiliar word. Then, when we look that word up we are led back to the first word. Hardly a satisfying situation.
It's a good test of one's understanding to limit explanations to the 1,000 or so most common words. If this seems doubtful, take a look at Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words or Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Nothing leads more quickly to an acute awareness of one's ignorance and the klutziness of one's feelings and thoughts than being denied those definitions and turns of phrase to which one turns from unthinking trained reflex.
Monday, August 17, 2015
2. The Pogues, “Lorca’s Novena.” [This is about Federico García Lorca’s fate at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. When I think about the various prominent regimes of the 20th Century (Fascists, Nazis, Soviets, Khmer Rouge etc) they are remembered for their crimes. It is not true that the victors write history. The side with the longest memory writes history. Or maybe victors do get to write history, but we need to change our time scale for deciding winners and losers. History never finishes, that’s the way it is with history. Chapters and verses make for convenient story telling, but are strictly for the convenience of storytellers and are not part of the story. At one time or another everyone is on the victorious side of history.]
3. Frank Turner, “If Ever I Stray.”
4. Norman Blake, Old Ties [Another album recommendation. I only recommend albums whose tracks are uniformly outstanding. The difficulty with recommending any thing by Norman Blake is that he has this wonderful way of refreshening anything and everything he plays. Perfectionism never sounded so natural.]
5. Led Zeppelin, “Tangerine”
6. Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three, “In the Graveyard Now”
7. Flight of the Conchords, “Foux du Fafa” [And yes, I know it only sounds like French.]
8. D.L. Menard, “Elle Savait Pas J'etais Marie” [I’m as surprised as anyone that I like accordion music. There’s nothing in my background to suggest such a thing. As a child it was a diet of country music. As a teenager I discovered Fleetwood Mac. Then later it was pretty much generic rock & pop until my late 30s.]
9. Flaco Jimenez, “El Guero Polka”
10. Ukelele Club de Paris, “Java Javanaise”
Monday, August 10, 2015
2. Norman Blake, “Spanish Fandango”
3. Brother Willie Eason & His Gospel Guitar, “I Want To Live (So God Can Use Me)”
4. Fred McDowell, “Amazing Graze” [At first I didn’t like it and was going to skip to the next candidate, but then it suddenly turned hypnotic. This is not your mama’s “Amazing Grace” and it ain’t Joan Baez’s either. He and accompanying singers give the same treatment to “This Little Light of Mine.” Another cliché of Christian and “spiritual” music.]
5. Ralph Stanley, “Go Down Moses”
6. The Missionary Quartet, “Dry Bones: Ezekiel Saw The Wheel” [This is what most people think of as “Black Gospel.” If you don’t recognize the title, you will certainly recognize bits and pieces.]
7. Johnny Cash, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” [Sister Rosetta Tharpe gives a slower bluesy interpretation that probably predates Johnny Cash’s. She is an interesting figure in the history of blues and rock and roll. She would often perform in blues venues (a strict no-no for the religious of either gender. For a long time there was God’s music and there was the devil’s music. The guitar (the quintessential blues instrument) was regarded as a tool of Satan by the more pious. The guitar is often absent in earlier recordings of African-American religious music. She included religious songs in her performances. She believed this was part of witnessing to those with little exposure to the Gospel.]
8. Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys, “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?”
9. Laura Rivers, “That's Alright (Since My Soul Has Got A Deal Up In The Kingdom)” [A hypnotic acappella performance.]
10. Precious Bryant, “When the Saints Go Marching In” [This is not the clichéd version everyone knows.]
* * *
Why so much gospel this week? For one, most secular listeners avoid religious themed music of all kinds excluding completely on principle. I think this is a mistake. When godly music is avoided in the same as ungodly music is avoided by Christians., the Christians win. It’s the same pattern, just inverted.. A much more unchristian attitude is to pick through the rubble for hidden valuables, picking and choosing according to non-christian criteria. Investigate. Appropriate. Assimilate. Good music is good music, regardless of genre.
Speaking of genres in music, the notion of genres in the recording industry started out as a marketing strategy. Before that there was hi-brow (= culturally important, even morally important) and low-brow music (bawdy songs, drinking songs, folk songs, etc) At the beginning in the Jim Crow era there was music for whites [hillbilly – rebaptized as country – and music for other Whites] and the Coloreds. African-Africans were thought to want their own music, hence the phenomenona of Race Records and Race Charts. From reading liner notes, Jimmie Rodgers (the yodeling brakeman) was popular among Black and Whites. This is hardly surprising given the way that musicians (the good ones, anyway) hear and recognize good music. If it’s a good song, they’ll want to work up their own version of it. Back at the beginning when making records was an interesting source of some extra cash, musicians made their bread and butter by performing at dances, house parties, street corners, anywhere they could get paid for making music. Everyone was on the lookout for something popular. Whether it was a “Colored” song or a “White” song really was unimportant. What was important was finding something people wanted to hear which would result in more gigs and more money. The Barrier between Races has probably been its most porous in music. Good Music is Good Music.
Genres are a useful marketing strategy for consumers: the purchaser has some idea of what the music will sound like. The downside of this is ghettos. People often become locked into listening to one genre, ignoring everything else. Lazy conformity is mostly to blame: one doesn’t want to stand out too much from friends, family and acquaintances. Have you noticed that being a fan of particular genres brings with it lifestyle expectations: attitudes toward drugs (reggae anyone?), clothing (punk and the various sub-genres of Metal no one can keep track of?), politics less so. There are lifestyles associated with different genres. You get the idea. I think time is also a consideration. There so incredibly much really good music readily available, more than at any time in human history. When the much greater mass of mediocre and awful music is included, hardly anyone has time to search outside their one or two preferred genres for good music (however you want to define it) in unfamiliar genres. It can be difficult and expensive to explore a new genre only to discover that you “don’t get it.” Just look at my trouble with Jazz. If I couldn’t borrow discs from the library, I’d leave it alone. Besides listening to too much of the same kind of music for too long spoils your ability to listen to other kinds of music.
Part of the division of music into genres is a wasteland between genres that reinforces conformity and standardization for the sake of marketing budgets. Music between genres is notoriously difficult to market. It’s not quite like anything else. Standardization of music into marketable genres leads to the periodic discovery of niche styles and forms of music. The last big one was the discovery of hip-hop and before that grunge. I suspect that the desire for new music is a half-conscious desire to stumble upon the next big thing before everyone else finds out about it, when it is still fresh and not made palatable to the widest possible audience because of pressure from marketing budgets. No one has written a song praising the big labels, but there have been plenty spewing venom and disgust. It’s a major theme in Frank Zappa’s music. Recording executives are always presented as soulless parasites. See also Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Working For MCA.” There are certainly others, but I don’t know them. Unfortunately the majority of music listeners cling to the illusion of success that has been promulgated by the big labels, and most musicians under contract cannot afford to piss off their labels with cheap stunts.
Friday, August 7, 2015
As far back as I can remember my father had always been an unbeliever. He refused to set foot in church. The one time that he did for a Christmas program, the church was destroyed by a tornado the following spring. After this, he claimed his refusal to set foot inside a church was for the protection of the church. He didn’t want responsibility for destruction of another church building. Whenever his mother visited and insisted on saying grace, he told us kids to be quiet while Grandma talked to the table. There was a disagreement between my parents as to whether church attendance should be voluntary or compulsory. He, of course, advocated voluntary attendance, she compulsory. It might be supposed that his advocacy of choice sprung from some enlightened impulse. It did not. He did it to annoy my mother and to score points with us kids. He was a controlling, domineering personality in important things, in petty matters and everything in between.
As far as I can look back, my mother was always a good Christian woman. I say this without irony. She remained steadfast in her faith and sought to be as a humble and obedient wife and mother. She was kind and gentle and even angelic. When necessary she could be an avenging angel. There was that time she broke a broom across my backside for telling one of my sisters that she was going to die, but that is a whole ‘nother story. She was mostly quiet about her faith. She sought to silently witness to us and to her abusive husband. “Silent witness” is Christian speak for embodying Jesus’ Love and Grace. It is something not often seen from the Christian Right. Now when I think back as an adult on what her life was like with 7 children, a loveless marriage, constantly moving because of a husband unable to hold a steady job, and not even a high school diploma, all the while sequestered helplessly at home in the countryside without neighbors closer than a mile or two (sometimes further). Her greatest private comfort (apart from her faith) was a years long correspondence with her mother. Of course, Arkansas, not just Northwest Arkansas, in the 60s and 70s was impoverished, backwards and isolated. The great post-war boom passed us all by.
My parents seemed to disagree about everything. They never raised their voices against each other, at least not in front of us kids. My father rarely missed an opportunity to offend her sensibilities. He, in turn, infuriated by herposition on high moral ground in her refusal to fight back in kind. After they divorced after 38 years of marital hell, she told me once that he frequently accused her of infidelity. A charge absurd on its face. First, she was stuck at home. He did not allow her to get one, let alone drive. Then there was the 7 children underfoot. I suspect he was verbally abusive to her calling her names behind closed doors. One time one of my sisters in a fit of anger called me a son of a bitch. She heard and flew into my sister who thoroughly shocked and overwhelmed by the sudden uncharacteristic vehemence of her response. For my father everything was Mary’s fault. He never missed an opportunity to impress upon me (and I assume upon my siblings as well) both(!) how incompetent and scheming she was.
I don’t deny it, in all of this I find my mother the more sympathetic character. It’s hard to be an American and not completely sympathize with the victim of a story. The accepted wisdom was that I as a boy needed an exemplar of manhood to follow. I was the only male at home until I was 10 when my brother was born. Time with my father was important to me. Time with him was often enjoyable but unpredictably it could turn into painful and abusive manipulation.
This conflict between my parents meant as a practical matter that you could be on Dad’s side or on Mom’s side, but not both. He wouldn’t compromise with her and she wouldn’t compromise with her. Their terms were mutually incompatible. We would switch sides depending on the vagaries of the moment, sometimes being Dad’s darling, sometime’s Mom’s. When we were on Mom’s side we wanted to go to church with her. He chafed at taking us to church but usually did, so as to curry favor with us kids. When we were on Dad’s side, we didn’t go to church. Sometimes we went to church just to escape the isolation, especially in the summer.
The endless conflict between them was largely generated by my father’s various undiagnosed neuroses. Every now and then, he would try something that went too far for her, and she would put her foot down. I don’t remember specifics, so don’t ask.
It should hardly come as a surprise that my father and I did not get along very often with the conflict only getting worse as I got older. She tried to play peacemaker, telling me that the reason he and I fought was because we were so much alike. I think these sorts of things infuriated him.
My mother married my father when she was 16. Most of what she knew about the world and people was that of a pious 16 year old. This came into play most importantly when we began entering puberty. Neither of them would discuss sex or the changes we were experiencing. Arkansas being part of the Bible Belt, there were no sex ed classes in school. Nor did any of us have access to adults or older teenagers because of physical isolation from neighbors and the nearest town. I learned about the physical changes from a college zoology textbook. The emotional/social changes only when I was in my twenties. I don’t know how my sisters fared.
I grew up in a household of verbal, emotional, spiritual, religious, sexual, marital conflicts. Conflict is painful because of a desire for mutually exclusive alternatives. Being a good son means being with both parents. But if each parent’s love comes at the cost of the other? It’s hardly surprising that I alternated between a vehement militant atheism and equally vehement militant Christianity throughout my childhood and adolescence. By the time I was 19 or 20 I was desperate. Flopping from one to the other every couple of years only made for ever greater mistrust of my allegiance to one extreme or the other. It was undermining my capacity for decisions. It was threatening to dissolve my personality. Looking back, it’s impossible to say for sure, but some kind of psychotic break was a real possibility.
Then I stumbled upon Nietzsche in one of my college classes. A third possibility appeared. Rather attempting allegiance in fulfillment of one part of my personality at the cost of other parts, I could lay claim to both. Neither one nor the other at the cost of the other, but both at the cost of embracing never ending conflict without resolution ever. I am the war between the parents carried on by other means. Later I found out that there were more than two sides to this war.
Sure, I do it to myself
It’s what I am,
Some x set against some y,
A rampaging r against an innocent q.
Omni bellum from a to z.
All I had to do was reserve the right to change my mind. As I’ve said, virtue has a history. This might seem to some a shameless exhibitionism appropriate in an age of shameless social media. It’s impossible to tell the whole story, but even with what I know, a great deal has been held in reserve. The above is more akin to one of my father’s manipulations than it is to a truthful account. Lies are best told by omission.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
2. 10cc, “Good Morning Judge”
3. Ram Jam, “Black Betty” [ When this version came out in the late 70s many people felt the song was racist. I think it was a school, maybe a university, that only recently allowed the song to be played. I’m vague on the details. It’s in the Wikipedia article about with the song or the group, I don’t remember which. So much for meaning well and remaining blithely ignorant.]
4. Lead Belly, “Black Betty” [See the Wikipedia article on this song. There was some controversy surrounding Ram Jam's 1976 release.]
5. Bobbie Gentry, “Ode To Billie Joe” [I keep forgetting that the songs that I grew up with or had a strong impact on me in childhood are not as familiar or as well-remembered by other people as they are by me.]
6. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, “Take Me Back To Tulsa” [his version contains the original wording: “darkie pick the cotton / white man make the money.” Apparently some people feel that explicitly acknowledging race-based economic exploitation is racist. From what I can tell “darkie” was one of the much kinder racial epithets, condescending if anything. I vaguely recall it was used with a “feeling of affection.” I was surprised to find this couplet was regarded as controversial. Contemporary versions (see Asleep at the Wheel’s version) substitute poor man and rich man for darkie and white man. It struck me sanitizing the language creates the illusion of making significant changes while simultaneously making it even easier to ignore systemic racism and not only racism of the systemic kind. If I do not feel myself to be guilty of the sin of racism, then am I not innocent of the sin of racism?]
7. Bob Marley, “Redemption Song.”
8. Cake, “Short Skirt / Long Jacket” [I don’t know if your remember the NBC Show “Chuck.” This is the full version of the theme song.]
9. Tito & Tarantula, “Cucarachas Enjojadas” [I came across it on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s “From Dusk to Dawn.”]
10. The Clash, “White Riot” & “I Fought The Law” [These are both short and make a matched set.]
A Possible Objection To The Discovery That Protestant Christianity Is Complicit In The Perpetuation Of Race-Based Injustices
Apologists for Christianity (Protestant and otherwise) will certainly point out the importance of Black Churches in the struggle for Civil Rights and more generally that Christianity has played a significant role in various liberation-type movements. For as good of an example as any see the role of the Catholic Church in Poland’s resistance to the imposition under Martial Law and its aftermath. And after the changes and a New Poland? The Polish Catholic Church hierarchy feels that it is owed something for its contribution to throwing off the yoke of Communism (= alignment of Public Policy with Church teachings and a greater overall say in setting Public Policy and punishment for dissenters – so much for the struggle for individual rights and freedoms.)
Christianity makes its most appealing revolutionary pitch to the downtrodden, the impoverished, the God-forsaken and The Meek. (It is no accident that lotteries and religion are at their most popular among the impoverished.) Typically little thought is given to what comes after promises of Liberation and Social Justice are fulfilled. The promises of Liberation and Social Justice are described as God’s Will by His spokespeople. What happens after the struggle for Liberation and Social Justices achieves a regime change? These same spokespeople still see themselves as Divinely appointed, hence they are best able to divine God’s Will. There always seems to be some small minority that is able to resist the siren song of wealth, worldly power and the plan to realize the tantalizing dream of God’s Kingdom on earth. Some of these are the most ruthless in implementing the New Kingdom, Robespierre, for instance. Others become voices in the wilderness passing away into obscurity (sometimes through assassination).
What is necessary to realize God’s Divine City? Strategic Alliances with Worldly Powers. With the passage of time the Promise of Paradise on earth recedes into the future after death. Money, Favors and the need for Expertise in governance ease accommodation. The Powers That Be are also in need of Salvation and suffer from guilty consciences.
Promises of Liberation are inevitably betrayed. Liberation is only achieved through resentment and hatred of the Old Regime. The desire for something is lacking. Without love there is nothing. Resentment, Hatred and Chronic Dissatisfaction are not miraculously cured or satiated through achievement of Liberation. They remain unsated and like all passions of the heart demand expression through rearrangements of their environment. Consequently the usual hunt for heretics, hidden enemies and traitors.
This dynamic applies not only to religiously inspired liberation movements, but also to secular ones which have all failed, some more profoundly so than others. But all failed to one degree or another. In all of them to one degree or another Liberation/Revolutionary ideologies, whether secular or religious, allied themselves with worldly powers. In other words, business as usual.
The American Revolution is a notable exception. The American Revolution was at its beginning an effort to restore rights that had been taken away. Notably, the colonists had no representation in Parliament. The whole thing could have been avoided if the British had simply treated the colonists as ordinary British citizens, which is how the colonists saw themselves prior to the Revolution.
Widespread recognition in the Black Churches of injustices done to other minorities is lacking. It was not uncommon for there to be theologies presenting The Black Race as the ultimate victim of history looking for its Judgment Day. Similar theologies can be found in other oppressed Christian populations. When Poland was partitioned, there was a strand in Polish Nationalist thought that sees Poland as the Christ Among Nations with a special world-historical mission. And I am sure there have been others. Curiously, adherents of theologies presenting their ethnic/racial/national group as victims of history have notoriously bad relations with Jews. The Jews have the distinction of being the first to come up with the idea of being specially chosen by God for a world-historical mission. Everyone else coming afterward had to explain how the Jews fell out of favor with God and now a new Redeemer Nation was needed. And as luck would have it… FWIW, The New Testament, especially Paul’s Epistles, can be similarly read in the same way as an expansion and fulfillment of Judaism.
Bringing up Judaism points to a problem intrinsic to implementations of Liberation and Paradise. What is to be done with individuals and even whole populations that don’t want to go along with the Master Plan? The achievement of Liberation is “proof” that the ideology/theology (really their the same thing) is “true.” And if it is “true” then whoever disagrees is a heretic and consequent threat to implementing Paradise. No doubt ideologues and theologues see themselves as merciful in educating dissenters and their children, rather than executing them outright.
There is no reason to believe that Christianity of whatever brand escapes this cycle of Liberation followed by Oppressive Implementation, other than to make believers feel better. Traditionally, Christianity has been called a religion of comfort, after all.
* * *
I wanted to work this in. I explained this in a post way back when. If whatever brand of theocratic Christianity were to achieve its goal of thoroughly theocratizing (an ugly word for an ugly idea) American Society and American Government the fight against their enemies would not cease with total control (whatever that might mean). People being people, there would always be disagreements as to timetables, allowable degrees of severity, what to do with unbelievers because because people are different. Difficulties in furthering implementation of God’s Will would have to be attributed to somebody. The hunt for heretics and Enemies of God never ends or rather it does with the collapse of the regime. Just look at the history of the Soviet Union.
Of course wannabe theocrats will to a man (and a woman) respond with Jesus, just as the Bolsheviks would have responded with Dialectical Materialism and Marx (and later adding Lenin). That there is any disagreement at all is a quibble over details. Beliefs of any kind, religious or otherwise, are no guarantee of Justice and Fairness in any form. Joseph Conrad already knew this (see Heart of Darkness). It is naiveté to the point of irresponsibility to believe that all revolutionaries of whatever stripe were insincere except for one’s own comrades. “If that is so, then how do I know if my sincere ardor proves anything?” Unfortunately that is a question that no revolutionary ever asks him- or herself.
* * *
The chief appeal of God, Bureaucracies and Ideologies is that they all push responsibility for one’s actions of onto somebody else. “Somebody else is supposed to be considering the ethical and moral import of my actions.” I suspect that this is the source of the sometimes vicious hatred of whistle blowers and investigative journalists, but especially hatred and contempt in some quarters for Snowden. It is easier to punish someone who reminds you, even if only for a moment, of your unacknowledged bad conscience than it is to admit wrongdoing. Maybe that’s the seed from which racism grows. Admitting wrongdoing would mean going against fellow workers, social standing, friends, religious beliefs, and God only knows what else. They do not like or tolerate whistle blowers. There’s nothing a lazy crowd hates as much as one of their own making them look bad.
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
2. The Sacred Shakers, “Jordan Is A Hard Road To Travel” [This song comes from a time when Christians were more concerned with the state of their own souls than with legislating the behavior of other people.”]
3. George Thorogood & The Delaware Destroyers, “Who Do You Love?” [George Thorogood covering Bo Diddley. It was Rounder Records’ first really big hit. Today it can be heard everywhere from Sam Adams tv ads to tv & movie soundtracks. It’s instantly recognizable & really, really listenable. The live version is included in the anthology collection. I prefer the studio version to the live version; however, both are good. He is one of 3 performers I’ve seen live. He opened for ZZ Top, and I very much preferred him to ZZ Top. If you don’t recognize his version of “Who Do You Love?,” you will certainly recognize “Bad To The Bone.”]
4. Dead Kennedys, “Viva Las Vegas.” [A flashback to the 80’s. I prefer their “Viva Las Vegas” to their better known “California Uber Alles” Their version of “I Fought The Law & I Won” is surprisingly listenable when compared to some of their other songs.]
5. Rev. Gary Davis, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”
6. Frank Stokes, “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” [Good luck finding this one. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it’s on YouTube. It’s an early version of a blues favorite. BTW, I have a new favorite album, “The Rough Guide to Unsung Heroes of Country Blues.” I don’t know how the old 78s were remastered. I have never heard such astonishing clarity for such old recordings. No hiss. No pops. I imagine the recordings on this cd are clearer than the original 78s when first released. We have a copy on the new cd shelve.]
7. Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva.” [I’ve liked Steely Dan from when I first heard them in the 70s on into the present. I’ve heard all of their albums and released tracks this is my favorite of the lot.]
8. Mississippi John Hurt, “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor.”
9. The Trashmen, “Surfin’ Bird” [If you haven’t heard this one, it has to be heard to be believed.]
10. Pokey LaFarge, “The Devil Ain’t Lazy”
I think all the mischief that Christianity brings grows out of a particular attitude. The world and the things within it are approached with a predilection to trust in appearances as if we really at home in the world and as if the world were made for our benefit. I think this trust in received beliefs and practices is more ancient than any skeptical attitude. One thing is for certain this propensity to trust in what amounts to first impressions is necessary for continuance of traditions.
Given that this propensity to trust received beliefs and practices is older, the appearance of skepticism needs some investigating. Skepticism is an attitude of mistrust. Either mistrust towards beliefs and other people or mistrust against one’s own propensity to trust. Either mistrust directed outward or mistrust direct inward. A mistake is made with unpleasant consequences. Is the mistake of someone else’s deception or is it a mistake of one’s own making by not making sufficiently careful enough examinations of one’s own desire to believe? Surprisingly, skeptics are closely related to conspiracy theorists. They differ in the origin their unpleasant mistakes. One believes that some (usually) secret organization has perpetrated a fraud. It only makes sense, then, to be on guard against further frauds and deceptions. The skeptic, on the other hand, finds the source of his mistakes in his not being careful enough. Both are burnt children: one blames the fire for his hurt, the other blames his inattention.
All in all, I find conspiracy theorists monotonous. It’s always the same. They are victims of the Illuminati, the Jews, the Government, the Catholics, the Masons, the Trotskyites. FEMA. It almost goes without saying that the conspiracy theorist is the one with the Real Truth of what’s really going on. A commonly overlooked element of conspiracy theories: the Society would be better off if the conspiracy and his ilk were running things in accordance with the power relations they claim to abhor. Truth’s primary utility is coercion against those who do not see Truth. Curiously, the whole fairy tale underpinning the workings of Christianity’s Salvation Machinery can be read as a metaphysical cabal to explain why Christians find themselves victimized by all sorts of things: the Gays, The Devil, Secular Humanists, the Jews etc etc. A Christian is always tempted to believe that his enemies are tools and agents of Satan even if unwittingly. A conspiracy theorist wants to shut out fear with any old conglomeration of interlocking beliefs even fanatically if necessary.
But how do these burnt children get burnt in the first place? Traditions adapt and conform to an environment and way of life. They “fit” the world and the world fits them. Skepticism grows out of tradition leading to unpleasant and unexpected consequences more often than not. Getting burned becomes chronic.
A thorough-going skeptic pushes his skepticism to its limits, becoming even skeptical of the efficacy of his skepticism in preventing unpleasant mistakes. Illusions are pierced one after the other, until the revelation that the last illusion that there are no illusions: illusions, self-deceptions, magical thinking, wishful thinking are all part of life. What then becomes of the skeptic [see Note below] and his hard earned habit of careful inspection? A magical transformation takes place. Mistrust of one's impulse to settle for any old explanation creates a space allowing one to view surroundings afresh. Expectations of the commonplace do not impede experiencing the world and its objects as new and fresh. Learning to suspend one’s expectations and settled beliefs allows hitherto unnoticed aspects of commonplace, ordinary feelings, thoughts and objects to be noticed. The old is new again. It is as if each moment is a present from some unknown beneficent deity, even if we do not always know how to open those presents. It would be a mistake to interpret these presents as proof of some pseudo-mystical belief in the good will of the Universe. These presents also include chronic pain, grief, despair, heartbreak as well as joy, courage, pleasure and friendship. One is no longer so sure that the unpleasantnesses of life are without benefit.
[Note: various online dictionaries and Wikipedia all agree that the root of skepticism, skeptomai, to think, to look about, to consider. Later under Pyrrho’s influence a skeptic came to mean someone who asserts nothing, which is the same as common usage in American English.]
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Thinking about skepticism having its origin in fear, does this mean that the attempt to thoroughly scrutinize and minutely examine feelings, thoughts, the utterances and behavior of other people, experiences for threats arises out of cowardice? Fear of getting badly hurt yet again? Sometimes for sure. Sometimes that very fear at the root of skepticism is itself thoroughly scrutinized and minutely examined. Fear does not always mean running away. An old cliché is a propos: “The best defense is a good offense.” Fear sallying forth to meet the world is called curiosity.
Monday, August 3, 2015
2. Willie Nelson, “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” [I’ve become less enamored of Willie Nelson’s vocals over the years. There’s this feeling that some spark, some twinkle is missing. His voice is till top notch in many ways. A comparison to Johnny Cash might help. Johnny Cash never stopped changing and developing his vocal abilities. In his later years he made good use of what would have been insurmountable handicaps in others. Just look at “Hurt.” But I also haven’t listened to very much Willie Nelson in recent years. Al Dexter did the original in the mid-40s.]
3. Johnny Cash, “One Piece At a Time”
4. Hedwig & the Angry Inch OST, “Tear Me Down.”
5. Motorhead, “Bomber” [All I can say is that Saturday started with Motorhead. The version performed by Girlschool is also very good.]
6. Butthole Surfers, “They Came In”
7. Elvis Hitler, “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (Satan Remix)” [Elvis Hitler broke up at the end of the 80s or at the beginning of the 90s. They always had problems because of their name. They were frequently picketed by people making assumptions based simply on their name. It was often assumed that they were racist and antisemitic. Racist because of “Black Babies Dancing on Fire.” The name was chosen because Elvis and Hitler were (are?) two of the most people of the 20th Century. Their best selling song was “Green Haze” – the words to the “Green Acres” theme set to “Purple Haze.” Elvis Hitler is a representative of Psychobilly – the name comes from Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time.” Unfortunately, our library network has zero holdings in psychobilly. I checked a number of bands. It’s disappointing.]
8. Elvis Costello, “Poison Moon”
9. Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Black and Evil.”
10. Skip James, “Devil Got My Woman” [If at all possible find the early version from 1931. The quality of the recordings is lower but he’s at his peak. His music fits the popular conception of the Blues as sad and melancholic probably more than any other blues performer.]
Even Conservative Evangelical Christians feel that one must make a difference in this world. It is no longer enough to resign oneself to God’s Will, renouncing worldly pretentions. Not too long ago, a Christian would firmly fix his eyes on his heavenly reward. Fulfilment and satiety of one’s longings were deferred until after Judgment Day. As for the wrongs and injustices in this world, only God could justly and perfectly reward and punish people (believers included) for their choices and faith (or lack thereof). Once upon a time a Christian life was one of resignation and waiting for the world to come. Of course there were occasional interludes of violence in spreading the faith foreshadowing today’s blood-thirsty warriors against abortion providers also invoking the Name of their Lord. The vast overwhelming majority of Christians, however, waited for their Reward and God’s Justice patient and resigned.
The clearest evidence of the prevalence of this resignation is in the criticisms lodged by socialist and atheist critics. “Religion is the opiate of the masses” is as good of an example as any. Why? The fixation on a heavenly reward for being a good Christian meant that happiness and satisfaction were deferred and delayed, thus making any improvement of our worldly lot. Traditional Christian resignation is still accessible through gospel music of the first half of the 20th Century. Give “I’ll Fly Away” or “I Wonder What They Are Doing in Heaven Today” a listen.
Socialism is an offshoot of Christianity. Apart from lacking a place for God, it promised paradise on earth. Paradise on earth could be realized through the efforts of people in the here and now. That was something that God could not promise. Belief was supposed to lead to action and achievement of worldly goals. It is difficult today to grasp the importance of Socialism in the 19th and early 20th Century. It almost always retroactively understood through Marxist and Soviet ideologies. Socialism’s appeal guaranteed an incestuous influence on Christianity. Or maybe the idea was in the air. It was no longer enough to wait and hope for Heaven and that God would sort things out in the End. A Reward in the World To Come was no longer enough. A vigorous and worldly Christianity was called for.
The improvements brought by science and city planning were embarrassing. Think of all the prayers for healing and comforting the sick uttered throughout 19 centuries by the pious. Secular ungodly scientists and engineers without even recognizing pious intentions and efforts began eliminating many diseases. The recognition of the importance and implementation of modern sanitation made periodic cholera epidemics a thing of the past. All done without prayer. Care and responsibility for the sick by religious institutions ended with secular Science and Medicine assuming responsibility for care and healing of the afflicted. Catholic and other religious hospitals are a distant echo of the importance of religious institutions for care of the sick with only peculiar limitations specific to the religious denomination remaining. Catholic hospitals adamantly refuse to allow abortions or reliable contraception to be available in their facilities. This policy is based on values, morality, ethics and God and not on what is medically appropriate. A rearguard action in a war it’s losing?
I am too easily distracted. Considered against this background, America’s Temperance Movement makes a lot of sense. Although to be fair, alcoholism had become such a widespread problem that something had to be done. Women, children and families were portrayed as victims of cheap liquor. Instead of look to God and His Judgment as would have been done in the past, a movement was created to influence and educate legislators as to their moral and Christian duty. It should be noted that this is the first major and ultimately successful attempt of Christians advocating for legislation on the basis of their religion that was about explicitly controlling and regulating the behavior of the non-religious.
Fast forward to today. The faithful are expect their tithes to do more than pay their pastor’s income and fees to be paid to their denomination’s hierarchy. Further there is admiration and money for activists and efforts to persuade politicians to end abortion and contraception for everyone. Evangelicals as the vanguard of society? To use a Leninist formula. Consider how the Religious Rights has waged a long running campaign against abortion and contraception. To speak Christian: they have made an idol of their good intentions to realize heaven on earth. They no longer worship God instead worshiping their City on the Hill.
Elsewhere in this blog I have referred to Christianity as an ideology. I would like to revise this. A religion is a system of beliefs that has as its primary focus God and the World To Come. An ideology is a system of beliefs to implement a particular vision of society. To the extent that Christianity is used to justify and motivate action in this world it is an ideology with all the problems ideologies bring. God and Jesus as tools to be used in this world. The single biggest problem with ideologies can be summed up in one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms from The Twilight of the Idols: “The will to a system betrays a lack of integrity.” This means that an ideology excludes anything that is inconsistent with its precepts. Our beliefs are attempts to clean up the messiness of Reality. Life is always bigger and more detailed than our capacity to grasp it. Conservatives are notorious for ignoring the best evidence for anything that doesn’t fit with their view of the world. Creationism. AIDS. Sexuality. Climate change. And the list goes on. Or as Stephen Colbert put it: “Reality has a liberal bias.”
I follow the standard reading of Nietzsche completely in finding non-ideological Christianity to be an expression of hatred of this world. Really traditional Christian theology is an elaboration explanation of how the believer have been cheated in this life and what to expect in the life to come. Part of the compensation being a good Christian is the Eternal Punishment of one’s enemies and a Heavenly Reward for being on the meek. It is a profound expression of Ressentiment. What happens when hopes of reward and punishment are no longer deferred to God and Jesus in the next world? Our feelings and passions are neither deceitful nor truthful. Truth and lie arise out of what we make of our feelings and passions. Passions and feelings are expressed whether we are conscious of them or not. They continue to exist whether we acknowledge them or not. What happens when hopes of reward and punishment are no longer deferred to God and Jesus in the next world? The hatred remains. The sense of being one of life’s many obscure victims remains. The Christian is cheated out of the life that he deserves. Christians defined themselves in opposition to the worldly, to non-Christians.
In order for a church to have cohesion it must have enemies first and foremost. First comes the enemy then comes “values” and “God’s Will.” What does being a Conservative Christian mean? Not being Gay. Not being for responsible contraception. Not being Secular Humanists. Groups, communities, organizations organize around shared beliefs, feelings, passions, and aspirations. Metaphorically secret handshakes. What do Evangelical churches share? Hatred and Fear of anything that they are not and a lust for destruction without the capacity to create alternatives. Every time Conservatives try to explicitly mimic their enemies the outcome is a pale pitiful ghost of the original. Conservative comedy anyone? Christian Rock Music? Remember the Conservative alternative to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show? Hardly anyone. Even Conservatives didn’t like it. Conservatives, especially the Christians, are irresistibly compelled to create pitiable knock-offs of mainstream and liberal media and entertainment, but especially of liberal media. Their efforts violate the first rule of creativity that even children know: you must do something different from what has been done before.
Against this background the hateful absurdities that abound in their pronouncements are not for our (= non-Christians’) benefit. It is as if we are overhearing a conversation. The primary purpose of their hateful absurdities is to keep their flock together. Everything else is a potential shepherd's staff for keeping their flock of sheep together.
The Death of God also means that His corpse is used as a prop in a dog and pony show.
Sunday, August 2, 2015
2. Ralph Stanley, “O Death.” [A dirge from the Appalachians. Make sure you get the version from the soundtrack to “O Brother Where Art Thou?” An astonishing acappella performance.]
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Human Touch.” [I love the instrumentation and arrangement of this song, but I love the lyrics even more. It is a most unusual love song. Instead of the typical themes (“I want to make love to you,” “you’re so hot,” Don’t leave me, baby,” “you broke my heart” and the like. It is about intimacy and the desire for intimacy not as an escape from loneliness or from something else, but as a positive good, as closeness.]
4. Loreena McKinnon, “Bonny Portmore.”
5. Johnny Cash, “Six White Horses.” [A simple arrangement, evocative lyrics, simple vocals. Emotionally powerful, especially after Sandy Hook and Charleston. It was a big hit in 1969 and is about the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy & Martin Luther King.]
6. Kyle Huval and The Dixie Club Ramblers, “Fiddlesticks / J’Ai Ete Au Bal”
7. Feufollet, “Femme L’a Dit”
8. The Tuneyards, “News” or maybe “Hatari.”
9. Tyranna, “Back Off Baby.” [A punk group from the 80s out of Toronto that had a career of maybe 18 months before it broke up.” The only reason I found out about them is that a compilation called “My Girlfriend Was A Punk” came into my possession by accident. This compilation was my first exposure to X-Ray Spex. It consisted of female punk groups from all over the world. I’ve looked for it but it is long out of print. Today it is a rather rare vinyl. From what I can tell it may have been a bootlegged compilation]
10. Frank Zappa, “Watermelon in Easter Hay” or as a fallback “The Deathless Horsie” from “Shut ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More.” [Try to find the version of “Watermelon in Easter Hay” from “Joe’s Garage” (aka “The Original Version). These are largely instrumentals. Theres a monologue leading into “Watermelon in Easter Hay” Used to, I didn’t mind his lyrics so much. But now I find them largely puerile and lacking in substance. While I didn’t mind his lyrics so much, I had difficulty grasping much of his guitar work. Now I’m not so crazy about his lyrics, but really like his guitar work. BTW, I recommend the entirety of “Joe’s Garage.” It’s the story of a young musician and his unfortunate end. It has the form of a rock musical. It contains some of his best known and controversial songs, notably “Catholic Girls.” I vaguely recall that “Joe’s Garage” was inspired by a remark of the Ayatollah Khomeini that in a true Islamic republic there would be no music or it would be state regulated or some such. I don’t remember clearly, I could easily be wrong.]
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I’ve thought long and hard about why I generally prefer music from the 20s and 30s in particular the blues to most contemporary music (pop, blues, rock and otherwise). I remember reading some years ago that fast food over the years has required less and less effort to eat. One of the reasons that I don’t like fast food (McDonald’s and Burger King, especially) is that the food almost feels like baby food. It lacks texture and substance. It is food to be eaten but not tasted. Following this example a lot of contemporary music is largely a distraction with a soothing effect. By and large it is too easy to listen to. There are exceptions, of course. The difficulty here is that most people consider listening to be passive. But if the brain has to process and integrate sounds, in order to find words, meaning, music, etc in the sounds and vibrations acting upon the eardrum, then listening is an activity and performance. Listening is something that the brain does. Some people will be better at listening that others. Because the brain is plastic, training to listen is possible. I think this (possibly) explains my fondness for experimental music and for rough music like delta blues. The music you listen to should include material that is challenging to listen to among other things.
I came across a comment about the blues (esp. pre- rock and roll blues): that it is music for grownups with grownup themes. It’s no coincidence that rock and roll came into existence just as teenagers were beginning to have disposable income. This is why much of rock through the 60s and 70s on into the 80’s concerned itself with themes of rebellion, sex, falling in love, broken hearts, and generally the themes most likely to appeal to teenagers and twenty somethings. Considered against this background most punk very much belongs under the rubric of rock and roll. What were the predominant themes of punk in the 70s and 80s? Rebellion, rebellion against authority, rebellion against consumer culture, and rebellion for the sake of rebellion. As I’ve gotten older I find myself less concerned with falling in love, cars, rebellion, and the like. Although I do like (some) punk for a couple of reasons. It’s music that’s not always easy to listen to and the expressions of alienation and frustration with consumerism appeal to me.
Reading Nietzsche is tricky (an understatement if there ever was one). Any understanding of Nietzsche’s writings is limited by what the reader believes to be possible. Any reading of Nietzsche is a Rorschach test: the result is as much about the reader as it is the contents of the shapeless mass of Nietzsche’s writings. This not an uncommon understanding of his philosophy of nature or his treatment of metaphysicians or really his approach(? treatment?) to pretty much any topic found in his writings. I don’t recall coming across such an approach to his writings, but I haven’t been following the literature for years now.
Because of the ambiguities, the ironies and overall prankishness in his writings, it is impossible to “prove” that any interpretation of anything found in them is either “correct.” or “incorrect.” There are better and worse interpretations (how does the aphorism go? “There are no facts --- only interpretations.”). Here better and worse means more encompassing/organizing or less encompassing/organizing. How much is included? How much is left out? How much can a conception of self assimilate and organize? How much must go unseen and unacknowledged because of a limited capacity to assimilate and organize perceptions, feelings and sensations? Doesn’t this sound like an allusion to the Will to Power?
Truth with the big scary uppercase “T” Truth and the less imposing lowercase “t” truth both come to be shades of gray. A belief is no longer naively either true or false. Binary oppositions are strong evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding.
Reading Nietzsche? Always remember that he was a philologist who wrote well.
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My interpretation of Nietzsche’s grand project? He said of the Eternal Recurrence of The Same that it meant the greatest possible affirmation of life. He had only ironic use for belief in God and Christianity. There was no hell or heaven or afterlife. The death of God meant that possibilities hitherto closed off to us open up. I remember in one of his early writings, I think it was Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, he speculated that a mayfly living only one day would buzz around thinking he was the pinnacle of existence. In Ecce Homo he said that he was the greatest embodiment of the Will to Power that the world had ever seen. His philosophy putting as much meaning and significance into the life of an impoverished, sickly, lonely, syphilitic (probably) retired philologist with questionable mental health, poor eyesight and no settled home living in the second half of the 19th Century mostly in southern Europe.