Occasional Notes: Political-Aesthetic Musings

Leitmotif:

Here we come to a turning of the season
Witness to the arc towards the sun
A neighbor’s blessed burden within reason
Becomes a burden borne of all and one

Decemberism: I’m enjoying the hell out of the Decemberists’ new album, The King Is Dead. It sits right in that gap that’s been annoying me since Toad the Wet Sprocket broke up. Yeah, it really has been that long. I’d never much liked the Decemberists’ other stuff, and when people say “Hey, you miss Toad too? Well, you’ll love this,” it usually misfires. Not so here.

 

So I went to their Wikipedia page, and — with apologies for a rude and possibly unfair shock — I found that they often play “The Horst Wessel Song” in concert. Nazi music. Revolting, no?

But actually I lied — they play the Soviet anthem, so obviously it’s okay.

By rights, I should find it revolting, and I do. As revolting as “The Horst Wessel Song”? Perhaps. The Soviets were killers — conscious, cruel, and methodical. The gulag was no more a failed, well-intentioned experiment than Auschwitz.

The Decemberists’ communism isn’t just a pose, either, not to judge by their lyrics, anyway. Yet they made a really great album, and I’m annoyingly helpless to feel otherwise. Theories:

  • False Consciousness: Deep in my heart, I know the free market is a bunch of nonsense.
  • Evolutionary Psychology: Our brains are adapted to an era when commerce didn’t pay, and when solidarity meant survival. That’s why slicing a pie equally is intuitive and why the law of comparative advantage — a better strategy all around — slips out of the mind if you don’t pin it down with a thumbtack from Honduras. The aesthetic sense comes from that early era’s lagging, slow-evolving brain, not from the influence of more recent events.[1]
  • Desensitization: Communism in art is, shall we say, nothing new.
  • Cultural Relevance: Communism survives as an ideal in a way fascism doesn’t, and not necessarily because of liberal complicity alone. We can’t neglect communism’s significant roots in Christianity, either.
  • The Star Wars Explanation: My tastes are bringing balance to the Force.
  • The Ayn Rand on Velvet Explanation: Self-consciously free-market art just sucks. It really does. Trust me. You don’t even want to know how bad it is. I flee from it, and I end up here.

Self-consciousness ruins a lot of art. It’s why I can’t stand a lot of country music, although I like a lot of music that close to country. I can’t escape the feeling that a lot of the genre-identified artists are wearing their country on their sleeves. A lot of hip-hop does the same thing, I think.

(I also find it annoying that they are The Decemberists, and not The Decembrists, as their namesakes’ name is spelled. A quibble, but my fingers just rebel here.)

Edmond Rostand: My friend Timothy Sandefur put me on the trail of Edmond Rostand, the author of Cyrano de Bergerac. It appears that almost none of his lyric poetry has ever been translated into English, which is a shame, because it’s quite enjoyable in French. It’s strange at first to read the author of Cyrano writing poems about photo albums and electrified greenhouses, but the strangeness passes. Rostand looked his own century in the eye, too, and I’m looking forward to doing some translations in the months to come.

To Radley Balko: I stopped taking Balloon Juice seriously right about when they redefined intellectual honesty as requiring me to speculate publicly on my employer’s personnel decisions. Um, thanks, but no thanks.

Radley, you’re doing the most valuable criminal justice reporting in the country, and people like this don’t deserve a second of your time. Ob art tie-in: Just read King Lear, if you haven’t.

The Moment of Impending Crisis Watch: Cracked seems to get it. Ob art tie-in: The bit about rock music at the end. So true.

[1] Remind me to rant sometime about how I don’t really buy a lot of evolutionary psychology, because I don’t.

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50 thoughts on “Occasional Notes: Political-Aesthetic Musings

  1. Additional Theory:

    The Nikolai Volkov Theory. As a child of the 80’s, you remember booing Nikolai Volkov fondly. When hearing the Soviet National Anthem, you remember Howard Finkel asking you to “please rise”. Whenever you hear the opening verse, you’re booing him in your mind’s eye… who wouldn’t turn it up?

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  2. Cultural Relevance: Communism survives as an ideal in a way fascism doesn’t, and not necessarily because of liberal complicity alone. We can’t neglect communism’s significant roots in Christianity, either.

    I think this is a big part of it for a lot of people. A lot of people. Most people, really, are sympathetic to the stated aims of Communism. In its pure form, if it didn’t require a kitchen full of broken eggs without the real appearance of an omelette, it sounds truly delightful. The same really can’t be said for fascism (unless you’re on the top).

    Of course, this completely doesn’t apply to libertarians. So I don’t know what your excuse is…

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  3. If ever there was a repeatedly-jumped shark, it’s Balloon Juice. It’s like reading goddamn 4chan anymore. To quote Adrian Belew:

    what was deluxe becomes debris,
    I never questioned loyalty,
    but this dead end demolishes the dream
    of an open highway

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  4. Communism, at its heart, had criticisms of capitalism (particularly the capitalism as was practiced at the time of communisms’ birth) that were both pertinent and fair. I don’t think fascism ever had much of a similar supporting foundation.

    Horrors of the USSR aside their anthem is musically a powerful piece. Especially if you don’t speak Russian and don’t have subtitles; I’ve never heard any other anthem mention a specific politician (Lenin) as much as the Soviet one does. I have to admit I never much fancied the US anthem very much but such is to be expected from a song organically evolved and adopted from a drinking song. The Soviet anthem, on the other hand, was doubtlessly carefully bred for soaring grandeur and impact.

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  5. Fascism still seems to be around, at the very least in the various neo-nazi parties in the US and other countries. Does Fascism have a specific ideological core like Communisms. I’d suggest it doesn’t but that many of the key elements of Fascism are still around: aggressive nationalism, racial purity, and the authoritarian style are all prevalent and advocated by large groups.

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    • I’d argue Fascism’s ideological core is Modernism. The efficiencies of the Corporation, muscular leadership, Leader as Glorious CEO.

      Communism only emerges from feudalism. When you don’t own anything, you don’t understand why owning land and shares of stock might be a good thing. As Frank Zappa observed: “Communism will never work because people want to own things.”

      Fascism only emerges from nationalist kooks who’ve just lost a war.

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    • I’d save the name “goon” for someone trying to infiltrate a private meeting under false pretenses. Or trying to intimidate a peaceful political gathering of any type.

      Other than that, I’m with Balko:

      I hereby condemn the rude security guard for his rudeness. And for his empty threat of arrest. I’ll go even farther. I’ll go ahead and condemn rude private security guards everywhere. I also condemn any cretinous bastard who would dare trample the civil liberties and free speech rights of a political opponent by surreptitiously canceling his lunch reservation. Finally, I also condemn anyone who would ask a political opponent to leave a private conference on private property that said opponent has attempted to infil . . . Wait. I can’t condemn that. That just makes good sense.

      But all that other stuff. Consider it condemned. If you could see me right now, you’d see a (handsome) face seething with righteous anger (or possibly smiling).

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      • Does “infiltrate” means staying at the same hotel, or saying “I’m a reporter and I have some questions?” And it’s funny how protesters protest when they’re on the right side, but “intimidate” when they’re on the wrong side.

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        • Does saying you’re a reporter mean you can never be ejected from private property? Even if you’re uninvited?

          Because if so, I’m staying at your house tonight.

          And again, I’ll save the name “goons” for the more than two dozen people who got themselves actually arrested.

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          • in·fil·trate/?infil?tr?t/Verb
            1. Gain access to (an organization, place, etc.) furtively and gradually, esp. in order to acquire secret information.

            I’m not seeing how this applies to someone who says “I’m a reporter. See my camera here?”.

            And I’m a bit surprised to see you assume that people who were arrested actually did anything wrong. Especially in the same thread where you invoke Balko.

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            • Did he have an invitation? If not, he didn’t belong there, and he absolutely was trying to gain access furtively. The claim stands.

              As to whether the protesters were really doing something wrong — a fair point. It’s conceivable that they weren’t breaking any laws.

              Yet I would expect a highly anti-Koch article like the one in Politico to at least attempt to make that claim, and it didn’t even try.

              Why do you suppose that would be?

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  6. I stopped taking Balloon Juice seriously when I realized that they’re terrible writers. If some future historian does a longitudinal study of the blogosphere, they’ll quickly realize that a lot of folks had the good fortune to get in the game early and have been coasting on rep ever since.

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  7. I grew up on goofy dance/pop country like Charlie Daniels and we still bust it out when we’re drinking. It’s fun. One the other end of the spectrum, I’d say it’s “interesting” to listen to David Allen Coe. On a daily basis, I prefer the old-timey stuff like Willie Nelson. As for new, I like Old 97s. Rascal Flats might be the worst band in the world.

    I spent some time in college classrooms comparing lyrics from gangster rap and harsh county guys like Coe. It’s basically the same stuff, through and through.

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      • Whenever I’m talking to someone who likes country music and they ask “hey, do you like country music?,” I tell them how much I love Lyle Lovett, or kd lang, or Uncle Tupelo. And they always tell me that’s not country music.

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            • I don’t know anything about any music except what I like when I hear it. I grew up being a connoisseur of rock, and if anyone said they like the Dave Clark 5, I’d throw up — or Paul Revere and the Raiders — or The Monkees — or even The Kinks, except near the end, they seemed to get it — but Bubble-Gum rock was not rock. Even Eric Burdon and the Animals had to prove themselves to my refined taste. But since the 70s I haven’t liked much — Springsteen was good, and I always a appreciate a new Leonard Cohen album, but something seriously wrong happened to music, and good song writers. Aside from rock, I liked folk, and John Prine was a good Dylan/Cohen follow-up . The only band that’s flipped my switch has been Old Crow Medicine Show.

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              • I remember when I was young genres were very important to me; it was almost tribal. I’m now where you are Mike; I like what I like. Even simple pop things that I would have felt beneath me at 16 I can enjoy now. Life is good.

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        • The thing is.. it really is about wearing it on your sleeve. The sawdust on the floor matters. Or.. the lack of sawdust on the floor matters. And I expect people to play their role! r at least try. The tired old question of authenticity rears its head here. Taylor Swift? She knows not of heartache and the other things she sings! But for some reason, we don’t really care that Johnny Cash didn’t really shoot Delia in the side.

          Again, you see this all the time in hip-hop. All that discussion about whether 50 Cente “really” got shot that many times. But it matters. Can’t have a poser. But the bio never really holds up in the way the purists want to. I always knew that David Allen Coe murdered a guy and taught Charles Manson how to play guitar. Then I found out… maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not.

          But now he plays with the remnants of Pantera, and Willie plays with Snoop Dogg, and I am glad.

          I just can’t stand the fakers like Rascal Flats.

          Consistency is not my strong suit.

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          • Maybe that’s why I like a lot of the old prog and glam rock. Nothing short of very powerful psychedelics could ever convince me that David Bowie was actually a very musically inclined alien. Once I know it’s a story, it’s fun again.

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          • Taylor Swift? She knows not of heartache and the other things she sings! But for some reason, we don’t really care that Johnny Cash didn’t really shoot Delia in the side.

            Because it’s plausible that someone in Cash’s demographics could have those kinds of stories to tell. Or could be relaying a story from someone he knows. It provides the illusion of credibility.

            I’m not sure how you can make a distinction between Cash and 50 Cent, though…

            It’s along these lines that I am unconvinced it matters that Milli Vanilli was lip-syncing (until they got caught and the illusion was shattered).

            (I’m actually not sure I agree with you about Swift. But I’m going along for the sake of this comment.)

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            • Let me clarify: I am saying that 50 Cent and Johnny Cash are the same. Or at least eerily similar.

              Although Cash really is a poor stand-in for Coe in this regard. Hard core Coe fans scoff at Cash in the way that GG Allen fans scoff at Metallica.

              I find the whole thing fascinating. But I also know that my smug meta analysis makes it basically impossible to ever just listen to anything unless I am drinking.

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