Ignorance and Innocence
What Barry said. I haven’t had time to say anything about the subject until now, so I’m glad he came out of hiding to say it himself (and better than I would have, too).
I know that most of the comments directed at celebrities, especially those seen as freaks in some way, are just like so much of what people say: thoughtless, knee-jerk verbal impulses. But in this case, it bothers me more than usual.
My first serious girlfriend in high school was molested by her father from roughly age 4 to 14, and I was the first person she told about it. A month later, she had a fight with him and finally got angry/brave enough to tell her mom. The family, of course, was divided, he eventually spent a year in jail, and she spent a little time in a mental hospital. Some of our limited free time after school was spent with me driving her to her group therapy sessions; not exactly the kind of storybook romance kids dream about. As one might imagine, her sexuality was very confused and painful for her, and judging from what I heard from mutual friends in the years that followed, my armchair analysis would be that she saw sex as a means for gaining affection while also being angry/repulsed by the other person for wanting her in that way. I heard recently that she had a few kids and ran her own independent business, so I assume she’s achieved some semblance of normalcy in her life, but it wasn’t easy, and it could have just as easily turned out differently. That lesson has always stuck with me, and probably has a lot to do with why I still maintain a mostly liberal outlook despite a natural tendency toward misanthropy and pessimism. So many people would have turned out differently if only they’d had a fair chance.
And so a lot of people now justify harsh judgments of Mackenzie Phillips because she was a “junkie” who “consented” to an incestuous relationship. They ask why she had no moral compass while ignoring the fact that she had been blindfolded and spun ever since she was small child. In such dizzying circumstances, she never once had the kind of clear mind needed to give informed consent to anything. John Phillips never gave his little girl the moral guidance that is a child’s birthright. Instead, he made sure that she felt complicit in her drug abuse and sexual exploitation, assaults and rapes. That’s what mega-perps like John Phillips do. They turn children’s lives into unspeakable hell and then instruct their victims to blame themselves for their pain. The rest of the time they make sure that their prey understands just how unspeakable everything is. And they do this while counting on the average person to snicker away from such situations with seedy little jokes rather than summon the courage to confront the unspeakable. Because of such societal cowardice, John Phillips was able to hide in a bright spotlight.
And while I’m quoting from Gray’s book, I thought of it again when I read this article about Stanley Kurzweil claiming that immortality is only twenty years away. Gray refers to Stanislaw Lem’s novel Summa Technologie, in which a ‘phantomatic generator’ enables users to exist in virtual worlds:
Virtual reality is a technological simulation of techniques of lucid dreaming practiced by shamans for millennia. Using fasting, music, dance and psychotropic plants, the shaman leaves the everyday world to enter another, returning to find everyday reality transformed. Like virtual reality technology, shamanistic techniques disrupt the consensual hallucination of everyday life. But with this crucial difference: the shamans know that neither the ordinary world nor the alternate worlds they explore in trance are of their own making.
[…] The phantomat enables us to live, die and be born again at will. By glazing over the fact of mortality, it leaves us with no check on our wishes. Our experiences are confections of our desires, and no longer connect us with anything else…Lem’s prescience regarding virtual reality technology is extraordinary; but the risk of all-encompassing unreality to which he points is itself unreal. The idea that we may be on the way to contriving a fiction from which there is no exit endows technology with a power it can never possess.
[…] Lucid dreaming is a dangerous sport; those who practice it must expect to encounter things they could not have imagined…Lem envisaged his phantomat as a generator of perfect illusions, but any actual machine will be prone to accident and decay. Sooner or later, errors will creep into the program its designers have written for it, and the virtual worlds it conjures up will come to resemble the actual world it was meant to transcend. At that point, we will find ourselves once again in a world we have not made. We have dreamt of machines that can deliver us from ourselves, but the dream worlds they make for us contain rifts and gaps that return us to mortal life.
Personally, I still think that the ultimate nasty surprise would be realizing that knowing you were immortal would actually be a form of hell, a torment you’d soon be desperate to escape from.
Germany and the West
Harper’s always has the best links and articles, and this one seems interesting:
The First World War was waged by the Germans as a war of the ideas of 1914 against those of 1789. Order, Breeding, and Inwardness (Ordnung, Zucht und Innerlichkeit) against Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity (Liberté, égalité, fraternité). Parliamentary democracy came to Germany in 1918 as a consequence of military defeat, and consequently in the twenties and early thirties it appeared to many as an un-German form of governance. The “West” was a negative battle concept for the conservative elites that acquired cultural hegemony in the late Weimar Republic. And National Socialism was the catastrophic high point of the rejection of the West as a political project.
Isaiah Berlin has said much the same thing in his writings on Romanticism, and very persuasively. But this struck me because it’s only been a couple weeks since I read a contrary opinion from John Gray in Straw Dogs:
This murderous vision was not confined to Nazis. In less virulent forms, the same view of human possibilities was held in the thirties by much of the progressive intelligentsia. There were some who found positive features even in national socialism. For George Bernard Shaw, Nazi Germany was not a reactionary dictatorship but a legitimate heir to the European Enlightenment.
Nazism was a rag-bag of ideas, including occultist philosophies that rejected modern science. But it is mistaken to view it as unambiguously hostile to the Enlightenment. Inasmuch as it was a movement dedicated to toleration and personal freedom, Hitler loathed the Enlightenment. At the same time, like Nietzsche, he shared the Enlightenment’s vast hopes for humanity. Through positive and negative eugenics – breeding high-quality people and eliminating those judged inferior – humanity would become capable of the enormous tasks ahead of it. Shaking off the moral traditions of the past and purified by science, humankind would be master of the earth. Shaw’s view of Nazism was not so far-fetched. It chimed with Hitler’s self-image as a fearless progressive and modernist.
[…] The radical right-wing movements of the interwar years were not enemies of “Western Civilization” so much as its illegitimate offspring. The Fascists and Nazis had nothing but contempt for Enlightenment scepticism and toleration, and many of them scorned Christianity. But – however perversely – Hitler and his followers shared the Enlightenment’s faith in human progress, a faith that Christianity had kindled.
The Moore Things Change
It’s possible to agree with Moore in theory and still find his tactics sloppy and ineffective…
Mark Ames addressed this envious sniffling about Moore’s tone, tactics, personal body-mass index, etc., more than five years ago. And look who he singled out for whining about Moore’s ineffectiveness and self-promotion!
This is pretty much the range of Left-intellectual criticism: hate him because he’s fat, aggressive, or, if you have to admit he’s good, then qualify that with lies about his ineffectiveness, which is exactly what he isn’t.
…And on and on it goes. Salon.com, which every day devotes its site to finely-nuanced attacks on the Bush Administration, reveals its own Peyronies-Syndrome-penis envy in Stephanie Zacharik’s article “9/11: Nay!” The first part of her argument is dedicated to defending left-wing critics of Michael Moore using a less-than-Animal House argument which goes something like: “They say if you criticize Michael Moore, you’re not really a Leftist.” By bringing this up, she thinks she’s neutralized the argument in-advance of her attack, which is qualified by a double-qualifier: “Although he has stated that his aim is to force the election’s outcome by calling attention to the Bush administration’s web of duplicity and deceit, Moore, ever the self-promoter, is the real star of ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’ I agree with probably 95 percent of Moore’s politics…But even though I’m part of the choir Moore is preaching to, I can’t help blanching at his approach…preaching to the choir just isn’t good enough.” Oh, so what is salon.com doing? Whispering calmly in the back of the choir, hoping no one’s really listening so as not to get in trouble?
This is the other false argument: those on the genuinely ineffective-Left argue that Moore is ineffective, “preaching to the choir,” even though the evidence — a record-breaking documentary at the box-office — conspires against this hopeful claim.
Comfort Killed the Curiosity
An interesting lecture on a subject I’m fond of. Seriously, I’ve found that insatiable curiosity paired with longwinded bullshitting ability can trick many people into believing you’re actually smart! Try it sometime.
By background, 99 percent or more of the people who ever lived on the planet by the end of the 18th century could only reflect the social status and pursue as occupations whatever their parents did. Curiosity, which may be a natural condition of children, didn’t apply expansively to adults because in their daily pursuits they had so few choices. Lack of education and social and economic immobility put pervasive constraints on the imagination.
It’s an interesting thought, because I’ve always felt that the opposite is just as true: so many people I know, even if they have a little time and money to spare, simply don’t care to learn anything new once out of school, content to just partake of the endless buffet of entertainment while knowing just enough to keep the paychecks coming.
The Shoes of Liberty Must be Polished from Time to Time with the Blood of Patriots and Tyrants
This seems open and shut to me: the Iraqi journalist should go to jail for a rather long time.
Speaking after his release, he said he had been beaten with iron bars, given electric shocks and “waterboarded”, and even now feared for his life.
His family say he was likely to travel to Greece later this week for medical treatment and for his own protection.
“These fearsome services, the US intelligence services and its affiliated services, will spare no efforts to track me as an insurgent revolutionary,” he said at a news conference staged by his television station, al-Baghdadiya.
“And here I want to warn all my relatives and people close to me that these services will use all means to trap and try to kill and liquidate me either physically, socially or professionally.”
To be fair, Perlstein did bravely announce a few months later that he “no longer fear(ed) populism,” calling it “our American common sense.” (As long as it’s homegrown populism, I guess. Can’t trust the foreigners with it.) But his initial complaint was that American liberals weren’t rushing en masse to a bipartisan defense of the idea that heads of state — especially this state — should not be subject to direct reactions from any of the plebians whose lives they casually destroy, lest our snickering at the sight of Bush getting a well-earned mouthful of shoe leather inspire other people to similarly disrespect the American president and send us spiraling down into the depths of anarcho-fascism. And lo and behold, it looks like he was right! I feel so ashamed.
Artistic integrity and rock ‘n’ roll: complementary or mutually exclusive? On the one hand, to name just one obvious example, you have the high priest of RAWK GAWD-dom, Gene Simmons, a man who apparently made it his mission in life to be the living embodiment of every negative stereotype of base, money-grubbing Jews, a man who could teach gangsta rappers a thing or two about zealously proseletyzing for music being nothing more than a convenient vehicle for gettin’ laid and gettin’ paid. Embarrassing and pathetic in his strident insistence that anyone not enslaved to his wallet and genitals is a liar and a fraud, perhaps revealing more than he intends with his incessant efforts to deny that anyone could possibly aspire to do anything for any reason other than the most ignoble, one wishes he would gather whatever scraps of dignity he has remaining and bury them in one of those fucking Kiss Kaskets.
On stage last summer at Madison Square Garden, Eddie Vedder told a story. The Pearl Jam singer had recently been in a coffee shop, when he saw something unfamiliar for sale: a plastic MusicPass card that allowed its owner to download an album in MP3 form. Vedder, a longtime vinyl booster, was appalled. The difference between buying music the old-fashioned way and through these newfangled means, he declared, was “like the difference between making love to a real woman and a plastic one.”
Well, I say that for true audio purity, one must accept no substitutes for a handcrafted Victor phonograph, harrumph harrumph blah blah! I mean, jesus — I can certainly understand preferring one format to another, but the music will impact the listener the same way regardless of whether they hear it on mp3, CD, cassette, 8-track, vinyl LP, or via some traveling minstrel. There’s nothing inherently more real or meaningful about an LP as opposed to an mp3; the music and its message are not necessarily invalidated or proven hollow and false if the listener first hears it in a Coke commercial or while playing Grand Theft Auto. Quit with the fucking snobbery already, or at least find some new variations on the same old tired romantic themes. (Like George Carlin said, everything is “natural”, even plastic. There is nothing from somewhere outside the universe. People are primates who evolved within the world and will eventually be absorbed back into it, along with all the steel, plastic and toxic chemicals that our product-of-evolution brains dreamed up. Perhaps, as Carlin suggested, we even evolved as Mother Nature’s means to produce plastic! And why does Eddie Vedder hate dinosaur bones anyway?)
I remember an interview several years ago with a musician I wasn’t familiar with, and whose name didn’t stick with me. But I do remember that he talked a bit about the difference between the hair-band era vs. the grunge era in rock music, and he differed from the conventional wisdom in saying that Nirvana had unfairly been tagged as the catalyst that destroyed all that Sunset Strip, cock-rockin’, feel-good, brainless party music (leaving aside the fact that it was really due to marketing departments at the major record labels being unable to conceive of people wanting to listen to more than one type of music and promoting bands accordingly). Cobain and co., he said, at least still embodied some of the charismatic, anarchistic debauchery that had always been a part of rock ‘n’ roll, from brawls with security guards to gender-bending to heavy drug use, whereas Pearl Jam were actually the ones who went out of their way to make their music (and image) as staid, boring, and humorless as possible, an uptight exercise in moral and intellectual instruction and improvement rather than having fun, with Vedder acting as the Martin Luther, if you will, of the Protestant Reformation that was the Seattle-based grunge scene, grimly setting about his task of ridding music of all corruption, frilly adornments and ornamentation, and clearing away all intermediaries that would otherwise create distance between the artist and the audience, between the listener and the pure, mystical connection with the music. (Though to be fair, he never took the extra step that so many of his alt-rock contemporaries did, openly sneering at a large percentage of their audience for being insufficiently hip and enlightened to even deserve the privilege of hearing their music.)
Is it meaningful to argue that a band that spent 14 years recording for Sony has, with a Target deal, sold out? Maybe.
No. “Selling out” is a senseless, entirely subjective term rooted in adolescent narcissism, or, to be slightly more generous, a romantic conceit that the original intention of the artist, if sufficiently pure, trumps all else, including the effect it has on the public. GG Allin, perhaps, aside, most musicians do strive to find some sort of balance between expressing themselves the way they want, and trying not to completely alienate their audience as a result. Most people in general, I would imagine, instinctively realize that pure expression is meaningless without anyone caring to listen and respond.
They “sold out” the minute they made the band anything other than a fun thing to do in their free time, which basically makes the term too vague to be worth anything. I admit I greatly preferred the Seattle scene to the L.A. glam scene, both musically and lyrically, but the one thing that always made me roll my eyes was the bizarre spectacle of rich and famous rock stars kvetching about being rich and famous rock stars. As someone who would have dearly loved to make enough money in my twenties off music to live comfortably the rest of my life, let me say this: there is no reason whatsoever to take your music beyond the personal computer, the garage, or the local club scene unless you want the fame, the money, or both. Yes, sure, you might primarily just want a lot of people to hear your music, but, you know, the fame kinda comes with that, and I don’t see the Eddie Vedders of the world choosing to give it all to charity and go back to working the overnight shift at a 24-hour gas station/convenience store. Unless you create a self-sufficient hippie commune where everybody sings their songs around the campfire for free, you can’t avoid some sort of entanglement with the impurities of the commercial world, and you can’t control what other people take away from your music.
Art doesn’t spring forth, ex nihlio, from some noumenal realm beyond space and time, unencumbered by worldy trappings. It’s created by flawed human beings with imperfect motivations, received and appreciated by the same; but if we’re lucky, it still manages to contain something greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone’s a sellout, everyone’s made compromises, everyone’s done things they weren’t thrilled about for results they weren’t happy with. Whores, one and all. Can we just enjoy the music now?
The Curse of the Drinking Classes
However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. All societies have had work at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment or a penance. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of renumerative employment.It was not always this way. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle defined an attitude that was to last more than two millennia when he referred to a structural incompatibility between satisfaction and a paid position. For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. The labour of the hands, as much as of the mercantile sides of the mind, would lead to psychological deformation.[…] The bourgeois thinkers of the eighteenth century thus turned Aristotle’s formula on its head: satisfactions which the Greek philosopher had identified with leisure were now transposed to the sphere of work, while tasks lacking in any financial reward were drained of all significance and left to the haphazard attentions of decadent dilettantes.Aspects of this evolution in attitudes towards work had intriguing parallels in ideas about love. In this sphere, too, the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie yoked together what was pleasurable and what was necessary. They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit, and that there could hence be romance within a marriage – just as there could be enjoyment within a paid job.Initiating developments of which we are still the heirs, the European bourgeoisie took the momentous steps of co-opting on behalf of both marriage and work the pleasures hitherto pessimistically – or perhaps realistically – confined, by the aristocrats, to the subsidiary realms of the love affair and the hobby.
Growing up and living most of my life in North America, it always seemed natural to ask people upon meeting them what they did for a living. Then I moved to Spain where people rarely ask that question. I’ve been here two years and still don’t know what some friends do to pay the bills.
This lack of interest in people’s professional lives at first confused me, like people didn’t care enough about their friends to bother finding out what they did eight or ten hours a day.
After a while, however, when the cultural shift started happening in my brain, I understood the reluctance to ask: Work life isn’t important.
For a majority of Spaniards, a job is what you do to pay for the fun you have outside of work. Coming from a culture obsessed with discovering your passion (and being a mentor who helps people do just that), this concept of unimportance blew me away.
There’s a generation in Spain that got the short end of the stick career-wise. Being the first generation to grow up in democracy a huge number of them went to university – it was what you did. Unfortunately there weren’t the jobs waiting for them on the other side, so they found what they could. Many of them were getting paid a very basic wage of 1000 Euros a month even into their late 30s and early 40s.
With their early dreams crushed and hope for change equally bleak, these mileuristas (1000 Euro earners) learned to find other passions in their lives and think of work as something to pay for these passions.
[…] In Spain, people accept the bleak situation and get on with the rest of their life, finding purpose and meaning outside of work.
After Carol had left, as Symons threw away a pile of used tissues and rearranged the cushions on the couch, he remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited – long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms – what they should be properly doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling’.This curious and unfortunate term had first come into circulation in a Christian context during the medieval period, in reference to people’s abrupt encounter with an imperative to devote themselves to Jesus’ teachings. But Symons maintained that a secularised version of this notion had survived even into the modern age, where it was prone to torture us with an expectation that the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed to us in a ready-made and decisive form, which would in turn render us permanently immune to feelings of confusion, envy and regret. Symons preferred a quote from Motivation and Personality, by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, which he had pinned up above the toilet: ‘It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement’.
Die, Die My Darling
Our move toward physician-assisted suicide springs from the same quest for mastery over mortality that leads us to spend nearly twice as much on health care as any other developed nation.
But the idea that there’s a right to the most expensive health care while you want to be alive isn’t all that different, in a sense, from the idea that there’s a right to swiftly die once life doesn’t seem worth living.
There are many good reasons to oppose assisted suicide. It transforms a healing profession into a killing profession. It encourages relatives to see a loved one’s slow death as a problem to be solved, rather than a trial to be accepted. And as Emanuel noted in his 1997 essay, its “beneficiaries” are far more likely to be suffering from psychological distress than unbearable physical pain.