25 September 2011

Pointless video post - ‘More Than Meets the Eye’ by Testament

Testament’s another one of those names in American (particularly Bay Area) thrash that deserves to be hailed alongside Slayer and (early) Metallica - but which has sadly never achieved such recognition (in spite of having solidly outclassed the recent output of both bands). The blend of thrash metal instrumentation with Chuck Billy’s more death-growly vocals never really caught on with the listening public when they were all abandoning the genre in droves to go listen to Pantera, and when nearly every other thrash band decided to sell out. Still, these guys show that they can (and do) kick some serious arse.

But I watch this video and... damn if it isn’t the trippiest, weirdest, most visually confusing and overdone music videos I’ve ever seen - and I’m including the music video for Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ in that, by the way. True to its word, though, there really is more than meets the eye... which is a good thing, because what meets the eye is: Photoshopped cartoon skulls in transparency effects, an automated portcullis which looks like it came out of a late-90’s arcade shooter, Force Lightning emanating from Alex Skolnick and Chuck Billy (yeah, you guys are awesome - but not Jedi) and more bats than one would care to count.

Still, awesome song. And awesome album. 2008’s The Formation of Damnation is actually fairly broad-ranging and heavy in theme, even for a thrash album - from the War on Terror (‘The Evil Has Landed’) to scathing criticism of Bush (‘The Formation of Damnation’), religious extremism (‘Dangers of the Faithless’) and the oppression of innocents (‘The Persecuted Won’t Forget’) to good old-fashioned fun biker rock (‘Henchman Ride’) and existential, religious questions (‘Afterlife’). The last actually appears to be pretty personal for Billy, a lapsed Catholic whose close call recovering from cancer led to his renewed appreciation for the big questions (though now from an American Indian perspective).

And did I mention the whole album is solid and unrelenting thrash, front to back? Definitely worth a listen or ten. Very, very fun stuff.

24 September 2011

An insightful and interesting talk by Dr Robert Putnam

The author of Bowling Alone, and one of the founding members of the communitarian political-philosophical movement in the United States, came to speak at Pitt at GSPIA’s invitation yesterday. And he didn’t aim small in terms of his topic: the relationship between social interconnectedness and economic equality.

His thesis is thus. There is a strong correlation between economic equality and social connectedness – that was the easy part to demonstrate. He plotted the levels of social trust against the GINI coefficient across the globe (the most trusting nations – and also the most equal – were the typical Northern European offenders: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Belarus; the least trusting nations were those like Brazil and Egypt with massive inequality problems), across the United States (almost straight down the OLS regression line, with Vermont topping the charts on both measures and Mississippi trailing in last place) and across Italian provinces (again, the data went straight along the regression line). The not-so-easy part was the direction of the causation. Though most laypeople (as well as most scholars) would answer if asked what the causal relationship was between the growing economic inequality and the social disconnect / hyper-individualism we see now in American society, we would tend to think that the causal relationship was one way: economic inequality causes social disconnect – with the causal explanation being something along the lines of poor people growing poorer growing envious of rich people getting richer, and rich people growing suspicious and untrusting of everyone they see as not sharing their interests. Dr Putnam argues that this is not, in fact, the case – rather, it is social disconnect which causes economic inequality.

Indeed, he showed the data, plotting over time the levels of social engagement and of income equality in the United States. Intriguingly enough, we see social capital peaking in the 1960’s, and falling off (first gradually, then more and more drastically) around the same time that Dr King was shot. Income equality, however, reached its peak in the Carter years, before plummeting with Reaganomics 15 years later. The level of correlation was, in fact, quite stunning. Dr Putnam built up a convincing case that those generations (particularly the WWII generation) which were most closely connected with each other tended to push harder for public policies which would benefit everyone equally – civil rights, Social Security, the Great Society… and those generations which were not closely connected with each other tended to be more concerned with individual welfare and individual profit.

He made some very, very decent points here, though I think he could have done a little better fleshing them out. He describes WWII as having been a major force in creating networks of social trust among people of all races and classes – pretty much everyone in the country knew someone who had been at war. Dr Putnam gladly acknowledged (when I raised this question at the end) that this was not the case either with Vietnam, or with our most recent post-conscription military adventures. At the same time, though, he also saw that supporting a national conscription or a national service policy would be rather a non-starter among my own age group.

The end of the talk was something of a clarion call, though – he described in a series of vignettes and statistical references the sort of society that we were rapidly becoming. The ‘good news’ was that middle-class families are staying together more (as in, divorcing less), spending more time with their kids, staying in one place more and getting involved in religious and community organisations more. Their children also were benefitting from this arrangement: middle-class high school students were more likely to have a sturdy network of friends and acquaintances, were more likely to build off of those networks through their secondary education years, and were more likely to succeed economically based on who they knew. The ‘bad news’ was that the American working class is, to increasing degrees, the American middle class’s Dorian Grey portrait: a working-class high school student is much more likely to be isolated growing up, to not have a secure living space, to have stressed and detached parents (and very likely a single or divorced parent), to not have a close and functional network of friends, and to not have access to the kinds of social capital that could alleviate economic stress. Even worse, this economic stress has every likelihood (due to the modern economy’s excessive demands on a worker’s time and its unstable, disruptive influence on family life) of perpetuating this isolation, creating a vicious cycle from which escape is made ever more difficult.

We are becoming, in other words, the world of another Sybil. However, unlike in Benjamin Disraeli’s novella, the divide is not between a wealthy nation and a poor nation; it is between a wealthy nation and what is increasingly looking nothing like a nation at all. The effects, though, are very likely to reach us all unless we begin bridging that gap.

Definitely food for thought. Not to mention action.

When the links to the video of this talk are made available on the GSPIA / Centre for Metropolitan Studies website, I shall certainly post them.

22 September 2011

A brief meditation on being 25

Yesterday was my twenty-fifth birthday. It’s rather boggling to the mind that I have now been present on this earth for a quarter of a century – the tricks time can play are sometimes rather cruel. I can remember a time when Bill Clinton’s hair was a colour other than white. I can remember a time when Al Gore was a politician rather than a voice in the wilderness warning modern society of its ecological danger and calling for us to repent. I can remember a time before the 11th of September, 2001. Much as I dislike saying it, we’ve changed. And we’ve not always changed for the better. I suppose I could say the same of myself.

I’ve lived in six houses, one apartment and three college dorms, across three countries and six US states. I’ve said hello to a very friendly cat when he was one, and said goodbye to him when he was fifteen, only to say hello to two more cats (not as friendly). I’ve visited more national parks than I’d care to name, and I’ve stayed at home more than I should. I’ve been a member of a Mennonite church, a Lutheran church, a Church of the Brethren, a Congregationalist church, a Methodist church, a Friends meeting and three Episcopal churches (which I have made my home-on-pilgrimage). I’ve become an ardent metalhead. I’ve attempted to figure out where I fit into this world, and I suppose I won’t stop now.

Anyway. Here’s to the next quarter-century. Here’s hoping that it may be more hopeful and humane generally than the last, but every bit as memorable.

20 September 2011

Tomorrow, the state of Georgia will destroy a living, breathing human being. This will occur based only on a handful of eyewitnesses (a very unreliable form of evidence - the state has no physical evidence of Mr Davis’ guilt) - the great majority of whom either partially or wholly recanted their testimony under closer scrutiny. And it will occur despite the outcry for clemency from a number of authoritative figures within the Church, who ought to serve as the consciences of our time: the Rt Rev’d Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Rt Rev’d Archbishop Wilton Gregory and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.

Regardless of one’s opinion of capital punishment in general, this is not the appropriate action of a judicial system whose right and proper end is the pursuit of justice, which is based in truth. This is not the action of a good or healthy society. This is, rather, a system whose procedures and whose value system will produce a result which is entirely depraved: the destruction of the life of a man who may be innocent of this crime, in the pursuit of vengeance.

UPDATE: I concur with the New York Times editorial board.

18 September 2011

Of Adams, Jackson and Calhoun – and new battles on old fields

John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States

I am currently reading Peter Viereck’s Conservatism, which actually manages to be a fairly good overview of various strains of thought which can really only loosely be put together. He quite astutely identifies three strands in American thinking which have come to dictate how we conduct our politics – each typified by a politician representing a different set of interests and goals and political constituencies. In fact, what we are doing right now in the American political scene – though we don’t really realise it, given the disconnect much of the American populace has from its own history – is fighting out the same battle once more.

This goes back to the four men whom Viereck identifies as the leading lights of American conservative thought, insofar as any thought among the Founding Fathers could be considered conservative (which I doubt): Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay and James Madison – the founders of the Federalist party and the Brahmins (to use the common phrase) of an elite merchant class based primarily in the American North, centred around Boston. Theirs was a conservatism which was based – unlike the more liberal thought of Jefferson and Paine – in very deep convictions about original sin, and the need for legal and cultural stability in the face of faction. It was Hamilton who devised a system which would direct the people’s allegiance, loyalty and religious impulses toward a common centre in the US Constitution and in the office of the Presidency (as we have seen in abundance!). One may question whether or not this action was ‘conservative’ as these were norms which were written, not grown; created rather than cultivated, philosophically emphasising negative liberties and individualism over positive liberties and stability… but this is the closest we have to a conservative tradition.

It is into this very tradition (wary of mob rule, painfully aware of original sin, staid and militant advocates of stable political institutions) that John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, was raised. One can detect his aversion to mob rule and his allegiance to the tradition of natural law and the unwritten English constitution in his Letters of Publicola, rebutting the ultra-liberal Thomas Paine:

[The] principle, that a whole nation has a right to do whatever it pleases, cannot in any sense whatever be admitted as true. The eternal and immutable laws of justice and of morality are paramount to all human legislation. The violation of those laws is certainly within the power, but it is not among the rights of nations… [If what Mr Paine says is true, t]he principles of liberty must still be the sport of arbitrary power, and the hideous form of despotism must lay aside the diadem and the sceptre, only to assume the party-coloured garments of democracy.

Originally, JQ Adams had only to contend against his Vice-President, John Calhoun – aptly remembered by Erik Loomis of Lawyers, Guns and Money as ‘[o]ne of the most evil men in US history’ – however, his defeat in 1828 came not at the hands of the Southern partizan Calhoun, but of another pro-slavery Southerner, Andrew Jackson. Jackson practically embodied the ultra-liberal ideals of Paine: he ran under the party slogan ‘the Supremacy of the People’s Will’ (with all of the Rousseauean connotations that carries!), and routinely took presidential actions which ran roughshod over checks and balances, as well as over various foreign nations (as the Cherokee, Seminole and Choctaw were considered at the time) with the Indian Removal Act.

Viereck briefly notes that these three men – Adams, Jackson and Calhoun – mutually despised each other, and the way their political fights shaped up, they divided the nation along sectarian lines. Viereck makes note of a ‘Jacksonian West’, which gave rise to a populism which was virulently hostile to the conservative elites of the Northeast – ‘with its faith in an idealised a priori abstraction called “the common man”… [a]s if original sin could cease at the Alleghenies’. The South, naturally, followed the theories of Calhoun, who was bent on carrying the unstable and sinful institution of slavery forward in perpetuity, as a ‘positive good’. The North – and not just the metropolitan merchant elite of the coast, but also the smallholders and independent workmen of Vermont, New Hampshire, upstate New York and most of Pennsylvania – largely followed the conservatism of Adams: suspicious of both the concentrations of power in the slaveowning class of the rural-industrial South, and of the Rousseau- and Paine-spouting Western frontiersmen who thought by their faith in their commonness and the forward march of history that they could do no wrong.

Naturally, there are many new issues (like the rise of modern industrialism) which have come into play, but what is truly interesting to me is that there is this idiom that has passed into modern use which corresponds to the threefold political fracture in the United States. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry both expound the same radical-liberal, very anti-conservative Jacksonian narrative which absolutely denies original sin; they are speaking to a political bloc which aspires to use majority rule to ‘take back Washington’ (from whom, one might ask?), and are none too careful about which checks and balances they override to exercise their political will. If one reads the Tea Party platform carefully, one can see precisely where and how their political goals translate to increased powers, even dictatorial powers, for the presidency; as well as all of the anti-conservative energy, land-use and tax policies on display.

Of Calhoun’s corner, it is best represented by the presidential campaign of Ron Paul, who is notoriously tone-deaf if not downright insensitive regarding issues of civil rights for men and women of colour in America, and who expounds the political philosophy of Calhoun on ‘states’ rights’ and ‘nullification’ at every turn. It is worth noting that he’s not a very good or even consistent conservative given his rather unprincipled stance on abortion, and his unwillingness to actually conserve resources which by rights belong to everyone (I’m thinking here of his stance on selling off publicly-owned land).

And then there’s Adams’ own corner – the traditionalist yet socially-conscientious conservatism which weakly echoes the Tory radicalism of various English thinkers across the pond (my gentle readers should be very familiar with the breed at this point – Johnson, Oastler, Ruskin, Morris, Disraeli, Chesterton, Eliot, MacIntyre). At this point, it stands fairly vacant. The Roosevelt family, to a certain extent, mirrored the career of the Adams family in a number of ways: though Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was questionable, his insistence on civic tradition and his distrust of the concentrations of power in big business that led to his ‘Trust-Buster’ moniker are good examples of how he followed through on the Adams legacy. Franklin Delano was also interested in yoking the cause of the Eastern elites to that of organised labour through the New Deal – a large part of which was concerned not with building new economic and political institutions, but rather with stabilising ones which were already there. To a certain extent, the Democratic Party follows in FDR’s footsteps (very selectively and very tepidly), but even in the present day Republican Party, there are several former politicians and public figures who have adopted policy positions and political philosophies which overlay somewhat that of Adams – Jim Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee leap to mind.

In the broader scheme of things, I certainly hold out for a more radical, more MacIntyrean alternative – but within the historical idiom of American politics I am certainly most sympathetic to the Yankee conservatism of John Adams and his son, John Quincy. This tradition remains my touchstone in American politics; my grandfather – himself a smallholding Vermont dairy farmer – identified very closely with this tradition.

14 September 2011

On the paucity of modern moral reason

Ah, the New York Times, one of the last of a dying breed which actually does its level best to speed its own demise by not actually reporting anything significant (like the completely-fabricated casus belli of the Iraq War) when it actually matters. Often, though, the linked blogs and opinion columns are interesting even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with them - and this is certainly true of David Brooks’ latest, on the general incapacity of young Americans to engage in any meaningful kind of moral reasoning.

Brooks essentially follows in broad strokes the argumentative path already well-trodden by the new virtue theorists and the communitarians: Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and (to an extent) Allan Bloom - that the current moral discourse has had its legs effectively shot off by a practical-theoretical individualism which undermines any attempt to build a consensus around the Good, and that the current lack of rigour with which young people approach moral discussion is a symptom of this rampant individualism. I am sympathetic to this argument right up until the point where I remember that it’s David Brooks writing it.

This is nothing against Mr Brooks personally, only that I believe his general position on the society and on the economy is actually a part of (and a contributing factor to) the problem he is attempting to describe. I am thinking of a column that he wrote nearly two years ago, as the recession was still happening, where he praised the American cultural fascination with an uncertain future. He also participated in a debate with Gail Collins around the same time in which he laid out his position much more clearly. He liked the American model, in which entrepreneurs were given greater mobility, greater flexibility, greater ability to hire and fire at will without regard for the fallout in the labour sector, because it - in his words - led to ‘more exciting lives’.

In that discussion, I believe, Ms Collins rather hit the nail on the head: the sort of ‘excitement’ for which Mr Brooks was hankering came at the expense of job security... though I think it was disingenuous of Ms Collins to suppose that merely having health insurance can make up for having a stable vocation and a stable residence within a community. To some extent, the ‘excitement’ inherent to the neoliberal economy is of a distinctly puerile sort and is (often, though not always) confined to a very specific set of people - the people responsible for making risky decisions (such as the managers of various automotive and manufacturing firms over the past 30 years, or more recently the investment bankers in the run-up to the credit crisis) are in a position to reap the lion’s share of the benefits of success, but the costs of failure are all shunted off onto their employees or onto their clients. As we have seen, those costs can be substantial, and those costs are not simply in lost jobs but also in broken homes and broken communities.

I’ve generally found that when David Brooks veers into social commentary rather than political or economic shilling for the GOP, his writing becomes much more tolerable. Given his past writing, however, I take this recent position with much more than a grain of salt, and implore Mr Brooks to consider that most axial traditions have it that virtue is cultivated primarily within the family and within the community (for Plato and Aristotle, this was the polis; for Confucius and for Mencius, this was the kingdom or guo 国; for the Hebrew prophets, it was the congregation or qahal קהל). Any meaningful, sensible virtue ethic must take the form of proper roles lived out in some form of community, whether academic or religious or civil - it makes no sense to support, on the one hand, a return to axial moral thought; and on the other to support a neoliberal economic structure which has no reason to respect community ties.

13 September 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Breaking the Law’ by Judas Priest

Listening to some vintage Brit metal again - British Steel, in point of fact. Every time I hear this song I get the nagging feeling that the same thing must have happened to Judas Priest’s ‘Breaking the Law’ that happened to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ - though perhaps not to the same extent, naturally. Rob and Glenn were never as overtly political as Bruce, of course (or even some other Brit metal acts), but this song in particular certainly has an anti-Thatcher political angle which is rather difficult to ignore. Actually, it’s a fairly straightforward song - it takes the perspective of someone who just can’t win by playing by the rules that the neoliberal economy and its cheerleader state lay down on him, and who robs a bank out of protest. There are a number of really nice touches to this video - one of them being that they come to the bank disguised as 17th-century Puritans, only to break out into their jackets and leather pants!

Enjoy, gentle readers!

11 September 2011

Remember, remember

This is a day we are told, in advertisements or (in our case here) on the line marquees of our local Port Authority public busses, to ‘never forget’. It is a day which, rightly, will be remembered as a day of immense historical importance. The eleventh of September ten years ago changed a lot of things. I was fourteen then; I remember the shock and grief and outrage as the footage held us transfixed from our classroom televisions. It left a deep impression even on my fourteen-year-old self with his marginal understanding of international affairs.

However, I think it is important to remember that a great many things – good and bad – did not, in fact, die or change as a result of the horrific events of that day. It did not mark the beginning or the end of an era so much as punctuate certain trends which were already very much at play in the world and had been since the fall of the Berlin Wall: our uncertain standing as the most powerful nation in the world; the existential anxieties and need to redefine ourselves that came with such a position; and the rise of a violent (and itself very modern) fundamentalist backlash against modernity in many corners of the world (including our own). But these are only contingencies, and at some level unreal, as all ‘big picture’ concerns ultimately are. It is easy to miss the small tragedies and graces that befell the individuals, the families, the people of New York City who felt the pain most closely. Host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart and folk singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky both captured the mood of the city and its residents well, and they each say it much better than I can:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
September 11, 2001
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

I think and I hope that real, embedded remembrances like these are what end up enduring from the eleventh of September. Not the war, not the hatred or the rage, not the way we claim that it has changed us.

05 September 2011

Happy (American) Labour Day!

Naturally, I realise that the history of labour in the United States (and in Britain) is nowhere close to being as happy or nostalgic as Saxon’s ‘The Ballad of the Working Man’ makes it out to be; still, it’s a great rock tune and a great expression of solidarity with the working classes, whose way of life nearly has disappeared.

Happy Labour Day, everyone. Tonight I’ll be hoisting my tankard to remember the past, and to hope for the future in these dark times.