Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Disaster Gambit

[photo by Matt Brown]

And so another presidential election is upon us. I really hope I get to vote for a Sanders-led ticket in November. I would do it wholeheartedly: I have loved that guy since he was a regular on Thom Hartmann’s radio show. I want him to win the nomination. He still might. I guess we’ll know more on Tuesday.
     But this post isn’t about Sanders. It’s about what some progressives are threatening to do if he isn’t the nominee. It’s about an argument that goes back at least to 2000 (when it enticed me into voting for Nader, an act I will always regret), and is now resurfacing again. It’s about the “Bernie or Bust” movement, and this odd prose-poem by Michael E. Sparks (“Imagine that I have to vote for her just to keep the GOP out / I still struggle to do it / It’s like asking me to choose between death by burning or death by drowning / I choose neither / I would choose to vote for Jill Stein if it comes to that / At least then I could live with myself”), and especially these comments by Russ Belville:

Picking the lesser of two evils allows the evil to become more evil and entices the good to become less good . . .

If Donald Trump wins the presidency over Hillary Clinton, it’s not the fault of people like me who won’t vote for Republicans. It's the fault of the Democratic Party for nominating a Republican. For me, the horror of a four-year Trump term is less frightening than cementing in the Far Right / Center Right corporate duopoly in American politics created since Hillary's husband sold out Democratic principles on welfare, crime, race, labor, trade, drugs, and media.

Remember the tale of frogs in the pot of water? You turn the heat up slowly and they'll boil to death, but put them in an already boiling pot and they'll hop out. Donald Trump is the boiling pot and Hillary Clinton is the slow heat. A President Trump in 2016 equals a President Warren in 2020. A President Clinton in 2016 equals a re-elected Clinton in 2020 and the next milquetoast Obama-like speechifier in 2024 . . .
     Belville’s take is the most disturbing to me. I call it the disaster gambit. The disaster is the election of the most egregious candidate, and the gambit is the idea that by passive-aggressively facilitating it, progressives will prompt a national anger so profound that we will finally have a revolution.
     I suspect that disaster gambit thinking—whether explicitly articulated or not—informs much progressive rejection of Clinton. It’s a way of rationalizing away the consequences of a bad choice made under difficult circumstances. But it doesn’t change the fact that if Clinton really is the lesser of two evils, the lesser of two evils is still, by definition, less evil. Let’s be clear: those who embrace the disaster gambit are saying that they’re willing to contribute to an outcome that will cause more suffering for more people. And in order to justify that, presumably as collateral damage, one has to ignore the possibility that the imagined revolution may not happen, no matter how hot the pot of water gets. The truth is that a President Trump doesn’t guarantee a President Warren any more than a President Bush guaranteed a President Kucinich. And if the revolution doesn’t come, the suffering will have anyway.

* * * * *
The disaster gambit is especially problematic in this election, because it seems blind to the kind of disaster it is inviting. Numbed by a political discourse that has been eroding for decades, it overlooks the genuinely apocalyptic implications of a Trump presidency. It assumes the maintenance of a status quo such that there will be another election in 2020at which time we can right whatever wrongs have been committed in the meantime.
     With other Republicans, bad as they are, that assumption might at least have been reasonable. With Trump, it isn’t. The threat he presents is more historic.
     For months now, Trump has been compared to Hitler, and—with apologies to Mike Godwin—for once, the comparison is not unwarranted. It’s not that Trump is sitting on a carefully thought-out program for world dominance and genocide. But there’s an American form of fascism lurking in him—something rougher, sloppier, more off-the-cuff. Trump is the ugly id of America; the distillation and amplification of everything that was merely worrisome about Sarah Palin; the return of the Republican repressed. His psychopathologies, on display for decades now, are quite breathtaking. He seems not to believe in a world outside his own head, or that it is populated with other people who have their own feelings and desires and aspirations and experiences. It’s as if, to him, we are all avatars in a video game, and he wants the cheat codes.
     That’s pathetic, but it’s also urgent. Trump is mercurial and unthoughtful enough to take us past the point of no return before the end of a first term. As commander-in-chief, supreme court appointer, veto maker, bully-pulpit occupier, and wielder of executive orders, he will have no greater opportunity to perfect his violent, bullying brand of politics. By putting all that power in his hands, we will have opened up the possibility of something much worse than the politics-as-usual we have longed to escape. Environmental catastrophe. Race war. Nuclear deployment. Martial law. Internment camps.
     Some of those outcomes may sound unlikely. But the point is that “it can’t happen here” is no longer a viable rejoinder to the problem of Trump. His candidacy has been a series of events that conventional wisdom did not anticipate. His words and actions, offhand and kooky as they may have seemed at first, have accumulated such that they now disqualify him from the benefit of our doubt.
     The thing about American fascism is that it won’t happen until it does.

* * * * *
And what about Clinton? In its distaste for her—certainly understandable, even as it piggybacks a little too gleefully on a culture of misogyny, and condemns her a little too blithely for the sins of her husband—the disaster gambit presupposes politics in a vacuum. It fails to recognize that even a President Sanders would have to reckon with forces that Clinton has taken for granted her whole career—forces that have pulled every other Democratic president to the right since Reagan: Republican intransigence and irrationality, the anti-intellectual impact of corporate media, the depredations of capitalism, the aging of baby boomers, the spread of evangelical Christianity, the shortcomings of our educational system, and so on.
     The disaster gambit misses the fact that influence works the other way, too. Indeed, Sanders’s unexpectedly and unprecedentedly strong showing in the primary means that a President Clinton will have to be impacted, to at least some degree, by the ideas Sanders is known for—just as President Obama was impacted by the ideas that Clinton was known for (health care reform, for instance). If she’s the quintessential of-the-system politician, that also makes her susceptible to pressure from the loudest voices—and (thankfully) there may be no voice louder than Sanders’s right now.
     In any case, there’s a way in which supporters of the disaster gambit are flirting with the kind of glibness that composer Karlheinz Stockhausen displayed when he referred to 9/11 as a work of art: seeing the disaster only in terms of how it is most personally useful. I don’t doubt that their hearts are in the right place. The problem is that in politics it’s not enough to have your heart in the right place. Politics, as we have construed it and as we have to live with it, is inherently dirty, and it will be until that glorious day when we don’t need politics any more. Until then, we are all implicated in its results. If you are voting to make yourself feel good—if you start from the proposition that “it’s not my fault”—you have already misunderstood how this works.

* * * * *

One final thought: if Trump is the Republican candidate, and he not only loses in November, but loses resoundingly and dramatically, it could mean the repudiation and collapse of the Republican party as we know it. If he wins, thanks in part to the defection of Sanders-purists, then it certainly won’t.
     Are we progressives really going to trade that opportunity for a long shot at utopia?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

More new music

A short teaser with the Quadraphonnes, in preparation for this Fridays show at Portlands Turn Turn Turn (8:30 p.m., with Doug Detrick and The Crenshaw):

Also, this rough mix from the album I mentioned a few posts back.

More to come,” as Johnny Carson used to say.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Cheerfulness is an achievement."

(The title is a quote from Alain de Botton.)

(photo by Tavis Ford)

For some, this is the hardest time of year—a nagging reminder of isolation, and the feeling that, as John Keats put it, “we cannot be made for this sort of suffering.” For some, that feeling is made worse by the superficial visions of happiness that trot across our screens, and in our places of commerce. There, the holiday season can feel like an assault—columns of seemingly uncomplicated, impossibly Technicolor people, marching contentedly through a wonderland of material comforts. How easy it is to forget that even the most committed consumers have less sanguine stories to tell—a fear of death, a struggle with self-criticism or insecurity, a shameful memory lurking somewhere beneath the cheery veneer. Caught in the aggro-joy of the marketplace, how many will share those stories this holiday season? How many will ask to hear another’s story shared?

Here are a few from my own community. A family upended by a daughter’s suicide. Dear friends living with cancer, depression, addiction. Parents living with old age. A woman living out of her car at the other end of the street. Tales of divorce, betrayal, resentment—like tiny fissures presaging the coming earthquake. Life here is not only these things, of course. But even in a beautiful, earthy city like Portland, there is pain and sadness, and I suspect that, without descending into the ridiculousness of Debbie Downer, our task during the holiday season is to at least acknowledge it. Maybe such acknowledgment is where the possibility of hope really begins.

Confirmation bias aside, I couldn’t help seeing the same message in a poem I found yesterday, by Portland Revels founder Richard Lewis:

Call all the heroes home from war
Call them away from their fierce weapons
Let them fight no more,
For now is peace under the Yuletide heavens.
Peace, that is winter’s gift—
The ancient hope, renewed each year,
In song and heartfelt fellowship
In story and salutes of solstice cheer.
Call the people, the young and old together—
No quarrel shall mar this holy time.
When all clasp hands, each with other,
While trees guard the land and silent sky
So are we much in love with love,
At one with all that lives—below, above.

What struck me about these lines was something more than mere “solstice cheer”—though that was important too. But there’s also a landscape that must be “guarded.” (From what?) There’s a silent sky, hovering overhead like an indifferent deity. There’s a sense that hope must be constantly renewed, presumably after periods of hopelessness. It all seemed to cycle back into the mystery of existencea reminder that pretending we have actually overcome suffering, even for the sake of a holiday, is a way of re-inflicting it.

Speaking of the Revels—I took my daughter to see this year’s Christmas show last weekend (Mommy had her book club, and we took the opportunity to get out of the house for a few hours). I must admit that I arrived at the venue in an un-festive mood. At one point, the company came out into the audience, exhorting us to join them in a rendition of “The Lord of the Dance” (the shaker-derived hymn, not the Michael Flatley phenomenon). At first, I resisted. But somehow, something about the way I was invited in—a friendly face and a warm hand, stretched out on the spur of the moment—allowed me to push through my own season-induced melancholy. I in turn led my daughter into that line of dancers, and we circled around the auditorium, singing a song about a savior I don’t believe in, and enacting the endless falling and rising of the world.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Song Machine

. . . that vile element of competition in music. Surely that’s soul destroying in itself?
 (John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten)

Thank goodness John Seabrook’s The Song Machine is sprinkled throughout with quirky trivia about the music industry.

Did you know, for instance, that Lou Pearlman (convicted felon and impresario behind such turn-of-the-century boy bands as the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC—plus a lot of similar fare you probably have never heard of) is cousin to Art Garfunkel? Or that Barry Manilow hated “I Write the Songs,” the recording that probably made his career? Or that the “lyrical concept” for Katy Perry’s “Firework” came from, of all places, a famous bit in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (the paean to those who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”)?

Don’t get me wrong: Seabrook’s book is first and foremost a journalistic examination of the songwriting assembly line that has produced the most lucrative music of the new century—things like “Right Round” and “Umbrella”—and of the “mysterious priesthood of musical mages” (as he calls them) who operate it behind the scenes, under cheeky pseudonyms like Denniz PoP and Dr. Luke. But ultimately, the throwaway nuggets were what enabled me to work my way through. The rest, if I’m being honest, was too damned depressing.

Depressing . . . but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t because of the music—even though, as you have probably guessed, “Firework” and its ilk are not my cup of tea. Nor was it because of the mechanistic creative processes Seabrook describes—even though the phrase “the song machine” could be construed as a kind of dog whistle, riffing on longstanding cultural anxieties about technology’s influence in art.

Consider, for instance, the weeklong “writer camps” now routinely convened by mega-artists. From the outside, these seem like musical spam-factories—dozens of writers and producers collaborating in endlessly rotating pairs until someone generates a potential hit through sheer abundance of effort. Or what of the various attempts to harness creativity with science, signified by oxymorons like “melodic math” and “cultural technology”? One could be forgiven for finding these absurd, too.

But are such practices and philosophies all that different from those that produced music I actually like? Are the writer camps different in kind from, say, the industrial ethos of the Brill Building, or Motown, or Tin Pan Alley, or the Wrecking Crew? After all, the latter were “rock and roll’s best-kept secret” (to use Kent Hartman’s felicitous phrase) for a reason. As for “melodic math” and the like, consider just one precursor: Irving Berlin’s subjectively objective “Nine Rules for Successful Songwriting,” published in 1920. (“The lyric must be euphonious: simple and pleasing to the ear,” Berlin tells us—as if those adjectives mean the same thing for all listeners.)

One could summon other examples, but the point is the same: the mechanisms may be more robust now, but pop has always required an assembly line, or at least an assembly-line mentality. More importantly, given its intended listeners, music is music, no matter the time period or technology.

The real insight of Seabrook’s account is that the “machine” he refers to isn’t the assembly line or its products at all; rather, it’s the demeaning, dehumanizing juggernaut of industrial capitalism itself, taken to the ugly extreme it currently enjoys in the Top 40. As in most other sectors of twenty-first century American life, the musical rich are getting richer, and their numbers are shrinking, while everyone else (the musicians in the so-called long tail) receives ever-smaller shares of an ever-smaller pie. “77 percent of the profits in the music business,” Seabrook points out, “are accumulated by 1 percent of the artists”—a statistic that is even more lopsided than income inequality figures in the broader culture. Focusing on the quality of one form of pop over another (or the quality of pop over some other genre) is almost like saying this situation would be acceptable if more “deserving” artists were getting the piles of dough. The truth is that it doesn’t matter who is getting the piles of dough; it is the piling that is the problem.

In music, this situation is usually excused as some necessary apotheosis of the rock-n-roll dream. Yes, it inspires cruelty and masochism, evident everywhere from American Idol to the troubled relationship between Rihanna and Chris Brown to the fame-facilitated death of Scott Weiland (or Amy Winehouse, or Michael Jackson, or whoever). But it obscures those things with a playful marketing veneer; as, lately, in a flurry of ads (featuring many current pop stars) “that wistfully evokes the opulence of the ancien rĂ©gime of the deposed French Bourbon monarchy.” Indeed, it caters to listeners’ desire to be pop royalty, too.

Thus we might grow jealous at Seabrook’s description of a typical Clive Davis industry soiree, with its survival-of-the-fittest seating-chart hierarchy (current hit-makers sit close to the dais, while has-beens are consigned to the corners of the room). We might be awed by tales of music-biz excess, like the one Seabrook tells of the producer Dr. Luke, who had to buy Miley Cyrus a ten-thousand-dollar toilet when “Wrecking Ball” went to number one. (Apparently, they had made a bet.) We might be astonished at the obscene cost of promoting a single record, and the carpet-bombing mentality that “justifies” such profligacy. (One insider puts it this way: “The reason it costs so much is because I need everything to click at once. You want them to turn on the radio and hear Rihanna, turn on BET and see Rihanna, walk down the street and see a poster of Rihanna, look on Billboard, the iTunes chart, I want you to see Rihanna first. All of that costs.”)

But as easily as we turn away from the onramp indigent, we might also dismiss such things as part of the game, choosing from a set of ready-made rationalizations. High stakes drive artists to be more creative. Financial reward enables charity. Labels need some way to bankroll less lucrative acts. And so on. Ultimately, in the rock-n-roll dream as in the American one, individuals have to make a bargain with power and wealth, validating the system’s inherent unfairness in order to participate at all. And increasingly, aesthetic battles only seem to obscure the struggle we are continually losing. We get tangled in the surface scrub of vague signifiers—words like “genre,” or “beauty,” or “art”—ignoring the thick bedrock underneath it all: class.

In their brilliant new book, The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski describe what the kind of materialism we’re facing here really means. “Amassing wealth,” they write, “marked the beginning of an ancient transition from relatively egalitarian seminomadic hunter-gatherer communities—in which people were valued for their actual abilities—to agricultural and industrial societies, in which people were measured less by actual achievement and more by prestige, which itself was largely based upon the acquisition and exhibition of wealth.” We’re not going back to the seminomadic hunter-gatherer way of life any time soon. The question is whether we can get back to something at least “relatively egalitarian,” and whether music will help us get there, or—unconscionably and unbelievably—prevent us from doing so.