Monday, February 21, 2011

Power and Glory

Glory, glory, hallelujah,
right? Thine is the power and the glory? A novel by Graham Greene? Probably something punned on by a thriller writer as well, but do you know what the word "glory" means?

"The power of fortune is confessed only by the miserable; for the happy impute all their success to prudence or merit." -- Jonathan Swift
Where I went to college, the student body was slightly minority Jewish, which made Jewish the largest single religion. (I.e. 48% of the students there were Jewish, but, since all the other religions called themselves Methodists or Baptists or Christian-unspecified or Muslim, that made reformed Judaism the largest block.) The evangelical Christians noticed that our school had a church affiliation and even a school of theology and a seminary, and so they would routinely do what they could to antagonize the Jews and, in the process, the rest of the student body. I, at the time, was far more fundamentalist than I am now, and they forced me into the position of having to criticize my brothers and sisters forcefully when they would invite flames 'o hell apocalyptic speakers to proselytize outside of the student union ... on Yom Kippur. These people were just being jerks, though. They were not looking for converts. They were throwing bricks and hoping to radicalize Christians for a religious war they wanted to provoke.

Where I went to college again and again, though, the schools were public, and so they had "free speech" areas. These were a heritage of the glory days of the 1960's. These areas were most frequently used by "pit preachers." Two, in particular, seemed to appear at both schools. One was named Jed, and one was named Zed. (It seems that Zed is less well known. The web has remembrances of him, but Jed got more attention.) Both of them did much the same thing: preached at the undergraduates about how damned they were, how sinful they were, how they were creatures of lust and constant fornication, and how they were all, "GOIN' STRAIGHT TO HAIL!" If, on the other hand, the students would only accept Jesus, then they wouldn't go to Hail. They'd "Go to Glow-ry."

Zed was particularly entertaining for the students. I never saw either preacher convert anyone, unless you count converting the antagonistic into the radical. They provided an excellent rallying point for gay and lesbian groups, and they were figures of fun for the lunch crowd. At Georgia, the students sat on bleachers and chanted along with the preacher, "GOIN' STRAIGHT TO HAIL!" They'd then applaud, as if they'd just done the wave.

Of course one does not "go" to glory, as glory is not the antonym of Hell. Glory is also not a synonym of power, nor an empty syllable to go with vestigial Hebrew phrases like "Hallelujah." It is, instead, "Fame for goodness or greatness."

Middle eastern rulers understand glory, while northern Europeans understand fame. Fame is glory without historical memory, I think.

People go wherever a dead teenager's coffin goes and stand in line for hours to take a look at all his stuff. They travel thousands of miles to look at all the official statues made as publicity for the tyrants of Egypt. For thousands and thousands of years, rulers in the middle east have known that the very first thing you do upon taking charge is force a bunch of artists to start making your likeness and plastering, taping, painting, hammering, stapling, singing, and gluing it up everywhere. Make sure that visitors and the natives alike cannot escape seeing an enlargement of you and that they realize that you're big, really big.

If you're leader of all Turkmen, you need to show it, in gold, in every direction. Trust your gut: one day tourists will stand in line to bask in its beams.
In the United States, though, we think things like that are ugly, vainglorious, and obviously futile -- unlike winning at "American Idol." That gets an important recording contract and fame. Fame means everyone WANTING you. The other thing means everyone seeing and fearing or obeying you. That's why we consider it the height of progress when we can bring a "Miss Kabul" pageant to Afghanistan and tear down a statue of Saddam in Baghdad. Down with the official power, and up with the fame.

Not that I disagree about the propaganda thing. I'm a Christian. This is why I know that it's revolutionary, absolutely, when Martin Luther said, "yours is the power and the glory." In other words, we follow Jesus in denouncing any temporal glory, but I don't think I can praise the substitution of fame in its stead, nor the quiet way we have given up on the substance of glory.

You see, those dread monarchs were putting up their likenesses because they were going to get authority and fear and quaking knees. Their glory and power were in one body and being. In the United States today, we have moved into a world where power has slipped away, where morality has ceased to exist, because power and morality both have gone into this deferred mass. Individuals go to their Baptist churches and drop checks for $10,000 a month in the plate and go to work, where, for the good of the company, they agree that corporate strategy involves a plan to increase fees for consumers with low balances and overdrafts and a new order of payments processing that might increase overdrafts on people with low balances. That's not evil, though, because it was a good decision for the company.

The company isn't evil, either, because the company's decision, which is going to have a huge effect on tens of thousands of people, robbing many of them and sending hundreds of thousands of dollars from their accounts for no wrong of theirs, is simply a manipulation of that which is allowed, and companies are supposed to maximize profits. This is their command, and they would be failing if they didn't. Furthermore, a competing company would surely do so, and then that company would have that increased capital and use it against this one, and its directors might not be good people.

Our corporate landscape has gone entirely M.B.A. It is working as aggressively as it can according to its solitary rule: maximum profit for the lowest wages possible, with the lowest quality necessary. There is no thinking beyond the next quarter, unless it's about product development. And thus it is that every human on the planet has ingested dioxin, most have been exposed to PCB's, rBGH milk is suspect (IGF-I is identical in cows and humans, and the rBGH causes increased IGF-I expression), and "Round Up Ready" plants are extremely suspicious, and yet now in our food chain. Our own body's genes are patented by Novartis, Monsanto, and Aventis. We live our lives penetrated by radio waves from all spectra. We drink estrogens. We accept that there is such a thing as "the consumer" and that this creature is distinct from "us." We believe that there is something called "labor" and that it is also distinct from us. We believe that "middle class" means just about anything.

These changes are mainly in the last 50 years as well.

What we have now is not what we had. There are no mustache twirling villains and no gleaming smiled heroes. There is no glory. The evil that the average person faces is nameless and faceless. A company is convincing his eight year old daughter to text more, and it is doing so in order to make her a cash machine. It doesn't want her love. It doesn't want her to know its name. It just wants power over her. The bank he deals with doesn't care if he hates it. The Wall Street trader who drove up wheat prices and led to massive instability in Africa doesn't care if people wish him dead. He is without a name and is content. He just wants the power, the money.

They have no glory. They're making us all a Hell.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Consider, thou, the river

This morning, I was trying to come up with controversial factual statements -- statements whose exact truth could be and is debated by persons of good will -- and I stumbled across the fact that some physicists have discovered a hypothesis of "entanglement in time" at a quantum level. By the way, hypothetical and quantum are the best sorts of entanglements in time. Although the author suggests that this leads to time travel, it would be of subatomic particles, and so it would mean that muons are coming from the past or going back, and we goliaths of molecules are not harmed or benefited in any way.

I've said before how synchronicity has always, even before I read Jung at fifteen, worked for me. I needed no convincing of convergence, because I think the microcosm/macrocosm thing is just fine.

Also this morning, before I sought topics, my best friend treed a cat. She's thirteen years old, nearly fourteen, losing her teeth, arthritic, and still very dainty. All of her life, she has been the aloof and imperious one with her surroundings, fond with me. Her usual habit with cats is to cock an eyebrow at them and to treat them, like most things, as beneath her contempt. Now, though, that she has past her middle ages, I am glad that she got the primal joy of chasing a cat up a tree. She did seem embarrassingly pleased with herself.

As she did that, I thought over the length of my life and whether I had done or been or gotten anything that had been promised or sought. For a day or morning, at least, I could look not at the span. I could say that there is no such thing as this river. There have been segments, only. There have been rapids and swells, deep portions, stagnant pollution, and great agitation, and there will be a petering out in a torpid or tormented run at some point to come, but these things are neither here nor there. Each section is a section, accountable to its own judgment and frustrating any whole.

Did I go somewhere? There is no where to go. Did I achieve something? There are no things to achieve. Is death supposed to be a yardstick? Why? Surely it's no evil thing, if it occurs to every thing that has ever been.

This, you see, is quite pleasant, in the end. Each bend of the river is a river all its own. It begins when the last horizon is obscured and ends when the next comes into view. The very idea that we must look at birth to death and assume that these are appointed and meaningful measures, that there is an opening bell and a finishing tape, is absurd. I'm alright just now. I don't think I will be pretty soon, but right now it's a nice morning, nice afternoon, and with a fresh shave, a good friend (who bravely frightened a cat), and gasoline, it's enough. It's far more than enough.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Unpardonable Interruption

"Averagely wise a man ought to be,

a man should be
never too wise;
for a wise man's heart is seldom cheerful,
if he who owns it is too wise." Poetic Edda, "Sayings of the High One" #55

I have an idea for writing about interrupting, because I interrupt, and because interruption seems to be a skill by itself, but this is not it. This is, instead, about music, which is why the quote has nothing to do with music.

I have alluded to my punk rock past in the past, and even I am tired of the glory days.

I do still harbor a grudge against Lee Abrahms (now at XM/Sirius), who kept my brothers and sisters off the radio back in '81, who made "punk" a scare word, who played into the "Nightly News" stories on "punk rockers from England with safety pins in their cheeks whose battle cry is 'Anarchy.'" It's shocking that Lee Abrahms managed to harbor shocking thoughts, after so carefully screening America from shock, but apparently he had a "send all" e-mail with some Thought Crime in it. His inside came outside, and that's not allowed in business.

Anyway, before people were scared of rap and rappers, they were scared of punks. The difference is that they never got a chance to get over their fear of punks, never put us in the top 40 (unless you count The Police and Talking Heads, and even now - even as The Pogues sing about drinking to the point of damnation and have it used as a soundtrack for a Kia sport utility vehicle - the same folks who denied us space then are erasing us from "oldies" and making us unexist). We remained the unclean bacon product of music.

Why? Why the hatred from music itself?

Well, our central point of pride was anti-corporate sentiment, so I'm sure that didn't help. On the other hand, we were touring machines, and the corporations don't care what you think of them, if you go on tour for them. We were liberals (unless we were Nazis), so that might have been out of tune in the cocaine Reaganaut industry, but the hippies were worse. We were relatively intellectual. None of this makes sense, though. In general, the punks were no more unmanageable than what came later. (Rappers have been singularly obliging for the corporations. Their "more money, more bling" ethos has been tailor made for corporate bottom lines. The fact that the group is usually one highly addictive personality is also good for managing and replacing.)


I actually think that other musicians and the musical component of the music business (the folks who manned the operating boards) disliked Punk in a way that they wouldn't rap and didn't disco.

Disco, lest we forget, sucks. It is horrible. I don't care what you say: it's awful. It has one beat, no lyrical content, and is, at best, an adjunct to coke and sex, not an art. Take the best disco song, strip the rhythm track, the synthesized strings, and play it with a Dixieland band, and it's fine. However, it had synthesized strings. It had synthesized beats, as soon as they could be synthesized. It had loops. It had, in short, studio magic. The old guys with the ratty beards and stringy pony tails didn't want to ever listen to a disco record (although they seemed to enjoy the coke and sex), but they loved disco because of all the fun they could have in the studio making those interesting burps and gurgles.

The corporate guys.... Well, let's not consider those reptiles. They've demonstrated that they do not think at all, most of the time, and, when they try, it's a mistake.

Rap, too, is a great deal for producers. Rap, in fact, is a producer's medium. The producer often gets artist credit on a rap song, because the studio writes and makes the "song." Studio rats think rap is neato, because they get to push tons of buttons and run all kinds of software and experiment endlessly with loops and stuff. They pride themselves on inventing "beats," which have little or nothing to do with playing drums.

The studio guys, and the corporate guys alike hated punk because we interrupted.

We didn't merely interrupt their smooth progression from Fleetwood Mac to Mack Daddy, but we interrupted musically, too. You see, to make a song, the process is supposed to be:

  1. Audition as a singer
  2. Get a producer from the company
  3. Buy a song that the producer thinks is right for you
  4. Sing the song over some tracks
  5. Thank the company and wear its placard.
Or, if you are a "band" (and they would rather you not be), the process is:
  1. Learn the instrument to virtuosity
  2. With said group of musicians, produce a demo of professional quality
  3. Submit finished record (demo) to Artist and Repertory dude with packet of cocaine "accidentally fell in there"
  4. Get signed and assigned a producer
  5. Have demo re-recorded by producer who rewrites the songs for their "potential," puts new drums on, makes the rhythm sound like whatever sold most last year
  6. Have singer praised and given "side projects" until she or he does steps 1-5 above
What you are not supposed to do is be a collaborative unit or a team, a la The Beatles. You are also not supposed to go perform and build up a fan base of people who like the music as it is instead of how the producer thinks it should be or how Lee Abrahms's closet of teenagers says it should be.

Punk annoyed everyone. The corporate guys saw it as a monkey wrench to a system that was working just fine. The punk route meant less cocaine, for one thing, and it meant that there would be no way to be sure of the next financial quarter's profits.

It annoyed the studio guys, too. It interrupted. Instead of studying the instrument for decades and then submitting the perfected performance to modification, people were shortcutting. They were having their witty lyrics or protests and going straight out with them, and yet
without relying on a studio to do it.

That's awful, isn't it?

Instead of sturm und drang compositions about what it would be like to be a ghost in a wishing well, we were strum and dang. We grabbed Ventures records and rockabilly and just ... played ... badly, but we needed no one's help in doing it. If we bored the audience, we heard about it. We didn't have to wait for a report from a focus group.