Monday, August 31, 2015

Ag an Babhla na Choillte Chulleain aríst.

 Hollywood Bowl to celebrate DreamWorks Animation 20th anniversary July ...

Ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite, thóg amach Léna agus mé leis Niall agus a chailín Áine. Chuaigh muid ag an Babhla na Choillte Chulleain aríst. Chuala muid ceithre saothair ceile.

Bhí siad téama na Fraince ann. Bhí maith liom an príomh-piosa is mó ann. Bhí sé an shionsacht daicheadú le Mozart. Tá sé ainmithe "an bParas,"ar ndóigh.

Ach, bhí sé an-ghearr ann. Ansin, bhí sé an dara piosa le Saint-Saens. Bhí se reasunta mór, ach go gearr, tháinig dordveidhle óg agus rinne sé go-hiontach.

Bhí sós ann. D'ith ceapaire cáis leis arán maith. D'ól leann Indiach geal "Loser" le Elysium i tSeattle agus leann dubh "Black Rhino" ó Grualann Adelbert i hAustin.

Sheineamh siad piosaí le Ibert agus Haydn. Bhí an priomh-piosa chomh ceol im "Bugs Bunny"; ní fheadfaidh go chuimne liomsa le Haydn is mó ach oiread! Mar sin féin, bhain sult as againnsa suas na rialtaí mar i gcónaí.

At the Hollywood Bowl again.

During the past week, Layne and I took Niall and his girlfriend Ann out. We went to the Hollywood Bowl again. We heard four musical works.

They had a French theme. I liked the first piece most. It was the fortieth symphony by Mozart. It is named "The Paris," of course.

But it was very short. Then there was the second piece by Saint-Saens. It was all right, but suddenly a young cellist came and made it wonderful.

There was a break. I ate a cheese sandwich with good bread. I drank an IPA "Loser" from Elysium in Seattle and a dark ale "Black Rhino" from Adelbert Brewery in Austin.

They played pieces by Ibert and Haydn. The first piece was like music in "Bugs Bunny": I cannot recall the Haydn much either! Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves under the stars as always.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

George Eliot's "Middlemarch": Audiobook review

I am reviewing Juliet Stevenson's reading of the entire book, over thirty hours. She captures the nuances of expression in George Eliot's ruminating, satiric, painful, and idealistic visions as filtered through an omniscient narrator who creates a chronicle of this small English town's families. You get, this being a high-Victorian novel about the years just before the Queen ascended her throne, an immersion into the gentry. The poor tend to be backdrops, and the goings on of a doctor, a banker, a scholar, and their wives comprise the stories.

My favorite character is Causabon, who attracts Dorothea early on. Their relationship is fraught with sadness as well as dreams. Eliot pins down the lure of learned lore in an unforgettable way, even as she lets us see the folly of the grand scheme the couple follow.

This is one of the most famous novels in English, so the summaries of the plotlines and interspersed chapters examining the protagonists can be found easily. Stevenson captures the varied accents, male and female, deftly. A woman's voice open to emotion but steeled by intellect fits Eliot's own outlook well. This novel, true to triple-decker form does go on, and modern readers may need more patience than that of audiences long ago for such steady attention to the intricate observations Eliot conveys.

Hearing this, one gets caught up in the flow. The immense detail may or may not be lost on a listener rather than a reader. The various languages of the quotes opening each chapter are communicated faithfully and Stevenson and Eliot match each other in terms of the tone this novel takes, sometimes arch, sometimes sensitive, sometimes impassioned. It's a lot to follow.

Having studied this novel decades ago in college and then always meaning to return to it, I found this on audio a pleasant experience. No spoilers, but highlights are three deaths that play crucial roles here. All captured with wheezes, faltering voices, and growing weightiness well by Stevenson. Now, it is her voice I will hear in these pages if I see them again. (Amazon US 6-20-15 + Audible)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mark Boyle's "Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi": Book Review

This Irish activist lived without money and oil for three years. Yet he writes in his third book about how such gestures seem to pale before what lies ahead. Those who disdain the capitalist and ecologically destructive system, Mark Boyle concedes, are outnumbered and overwhelmed by it.

And by those of us who capitulate to its ecocide. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, as its title signals, carries a mixed metaphor to those who want change. Peacemaking can only go so far against relentless violence perpetuated upon our planet. Boyle confronts pacifists with tough questions about how far they can advance their rear-guard and small-scale efforts, however ethical and sincere, against an uncaring economic juggernaut. What, Boyle reasons, is the violent action carried out to protect earth when compared with that inflicted upon it? We need, he demands, to fight back hard.

Many figures enter this to give some guidance to Boyle. He draws on influences from Aldo Leopold to Slavoj Zizek, Thoreau to Tolkien. Also, he integrates Earth First! leader Dave Foreman's arguments into his own lively reaction to those who condemn eco-fighters as if terrorists, while either directly or indirectly colluding with a far deadlier cabal of corporations and nations who damage far more than a lumber road into old-growth forests. Boyle makes a convincing case for rethinking this.

Boyle also includes a few anecdotes to make his case. I found a telling one in how the communal activity of cutting the bog for peat in rural Ireland, followed by a break to boil the water for tea, allowed the workers to relax and chat. When the flask was introduced, each laborer could then take his or her own tea, warmed already all day, into the bogs, and this cut down interaction with others.

Out of such incidents, we grow apart as technology separates us from our natural ties to each other. Nature and its draw plays of course a central role in this polemic. Boyle may not give glib answers to us, but from his own experience making it on a three-acre farm, he confronts what he tries to solve. 
(To be published Oct. 13; e-galley reviewed.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ken Bruen's "Green Hell": Book Review

As a loyal reader of the Jack Taylor series, I feared that he would not survive the batterings and beatings meted out to him in Galway's alleys or penthouses. But Ken Bruen keeps his protagonist going. Like the later installments, a young person of Goth tendencies surfaces, This time it's Emerald--she's a welcome presence to keep the plot moving as hard-bitten but tender prose.

Bruen is in fine form even if Jack is beaten down. Some of his allies have not survived the past few books, and this one makes our anti-hero feel more isolated in his home city, as it changes along with the economic boom not gone bust--but not for everyone. The critique of Irish society in more materialistic, secularized, and rueful times cuts as always, and is leavened by Bruen-as-Taylor's nods to real songs. And books, by his crime writing comrades, whom he praises through Jack's choice of entertainment.

Also we find an American student, abandoning his thesis on Beckett to tell Jack's story. This I like. For the first time in these books, we get a substantial portion of the narrative conveyed from another point-of-view. This enables audiences to see Jack as seen through the newcomer's fascinated eyes, and it's very entertaining. It runs more smoothly than a few of the recent installments, too.

Visits to bars, to charity shops, to Charlie Byrne's (real) bookshop where Ken Bruen's books are sold (always a nice touch) reoccur. The Church as usual via Fr. Maurice comes in for some harsh repartee, and the ex-colleagues on the Garda as usual regard their former colleague with delightful disdain. Academia at the local university comes in for its own depiction, and drives the plot here.

The summation provided on Amazon's site sets up the background efficiently. It's difficult to review these books in depth, as much depends on the rush of the action, the rueful reflections of Jack, and the intricate wrongs done by those often higher up in the corrupt port city. It's fun to imagine Jack taking out baddies across from the Claddagh and the chapel on Galway's docks, isn't it? (6/22/15)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Molly Crabapple's "Shell Game"

According to Kristen O'Regan, this is "A New England"; I located this with no idea what it was in a search for Occupy artwork. You can read more about street art in "Agora-phobic" at Guernica.

Animal's Marina Galperina explains that the painting I share here features "modern feminist icon Laurie Penny surrounded by protesting foxes and police hound dogs."  Animal shows all nine images of "Shell Game," conveying feminine imagery in a grand-mock Victorian Empire storybook style. It reminds me of a surprisingly tiny image I saw in London at the Tate , "The Fairy Fellow's Master-Stroke" by Richard Dadd. Not in its direct color, but in the wealth of detail filling the intricate canvas.

Dadd went mad. It is as maddening to consider how little impact the frustrations of ordinary people have against what idealistic anarchists call "impossibilism," the notion that resistance and revolt can overthrow our corrupt system keeping us in debt to bankers, cowed by lawyers, fearful of police, coddled by media and entertainment bent on distracting us, but convinced the next election=change.

I composed this after a week of legal upheaval. Obamacare upheld, Confederate battle flags taken down, and same-sex marriage approved. Argue as some may, decades of progress have paid off. Yes, many grumble at the imposition of federal power. Most, on these and other matters, reason that as with slavery and patriarchy, superstition and bigotry, we must evolve away from outmoded strictures.

Yet, how quickly will liberation happen? I sympathize with principled populism, but its long-range success seems co-opted by those elected. Ever more dependent on an unjust economic and political regime combined to make us compliant by measures at work, cameras in public, and data as tracked, how can we fight such ubiquitous power? The Net promised us empowerment twenty years ago. Now it seeks only to monetize all we do, cajoling us as shoppers and consumers, to exploit our very selves.

It's no longer fat white men in cummerbunds, like Monopoly game millionaires, pulling such strings. Women and those marginalized rush to shatter glass ceilings, but do start-ups differ from Fortune 500 firms that significantly? As the show Silicon Valley skewers, "doing good" is their cynical manifesto. 

What's intriguing about Molly Crabapple's art in the "Shell Game" series is that she incorporates female symbols and caricatures, both as villains and heroines. (If I can still deliberately employ that contested noun.) Her account of the years between 9/11 and Occupy will appear at the end of this year, Drawing Blood. Funded on Kickstarter, her work in the year after OWS continues her pen-and-ink drawings, O'Regan reports, which revel in "frenzied visual chaos and declarative allegory." Like others, the artist takes inspiration from Athens' street art and protests; I found this on the day that the banks were shut EU imposed austerity measures on this defiant/cowed Greek nation.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Rojava's revolution

 This text is the introduction to our book A Small Key Can Open A Large Door.
"In Northern Syria, 2.5 million people are living in a stateless, feminist, religiously tolerant, anti-capitalist society of their own creation. They call their territory Rojava, and they defend it fiercely." So begins the introduction to A Small Key Can Unlock a Large Door, a 2015 book from the radical press collective Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. They interpret a complicated Kurdish reality, misunderstood by many, not only leftists. "We need some context to truly understand the words and ideas of the rebels of Rojava, else we can be easily seduced by over-simplifications and distortions — like the claims that the struggle in Rojava is a replay of the Spanish Revolution, or that it is a sophisticated public relations makeover for a Maoist national liberation struggle." Small Key mixes left-libertarian analysis with interviews, firsthand accounts, and journalism.

"Rojava is neither a state nor a pure anarchist society. It is an ambitious social experiment that has rejected the seduction of state power and nationalism and has instead embraced autonomy, direct democracy, and decentralization to create a freer society for people in Rojava. The Rojava principles have borrowed from anarchism, social ecology, and feminism in an attempt to chart a societal vision that emphasizes accountability and independence for a radically pluralistic community." By direct democracy and a common economy, Rojava reinvents. {I updated this entry w/more hyperlinks to coverage, 12-19-15}

Dilar Dirik, in another excerpt, looks at women's subversion. Against ISIS, they join men who resist.  "Being a militant is seen as 'unwomanly'; it crosses social boundaries, it shakes the foundations of the status quo. War is seen as a man’s issue – started, led, and ended by men. So it is the 'woman' part of 'woman fighter' which causes this general discomfort." I think of a difference my wife and I have. She insists if women ruled, war would end. Perhaps in time it will, with such women as leaders?

Yet, they claim violence is not an end. Dirik shows: “'We don’t want the world to know us because of our guns, but because of our ideas,' says Sozda, a YPJ commander in Amûde, and points at the pictures on their common room’s walls: PKK guerrilla fighters and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned ideological representative of the movement. 'We are not just women fighting ISIS. We struggle to change the society’s mentality and show the world what women are capable of.' Though there is no organic tie between the PKK and the Rojava administration, the political ideology is shared."

I admit peacemakers may, as in other self-defense campaigns, find their fervent hopes for conflict resolution thwarted by the reactionary and remorseless might of ISIS. The Kurds, under attack as non-Arabs for centuries by indigenous rulers and imperialist entities, cannot fend off by earnest appeals or amicable parleys the armed assaults and brutal regimentation of the Daesh, who have wiped out so many people in their invasions. Against their remorseless incursion, the Kurds take aim.

Across three cantons in Western Kurdistan on the Syrian frontier, a parlous situation continues. The map in the STW excerpt shows the smallness of the liberated Rojava areas vs. the vast ISIS territory. Western strategists understandably follow events here, while many on the left worldwide nit-pick. Libcom offers a helpful reading guide, where the comments and coverage display the pro-con sides.

I commented in an earlier post about the controversial legacy of "Apo" Ocalan, founder of the PKK, over his Maoist and Marxist-Leninist origins. But STW regards the recent transformation of Rojava as noteworthy. "Any sincere analysis of the past two years in Rojava shows an honest commitment to pluralistic and decentralized ideas, words, and practice." Against the male-dominated Kurdish traditions, feminism and plurality of ethnic and religious identities are encouraged. Anti-capitalism and a Murray Bookchin-Zapatista grassroots economics via cooperative ideals are promoted. Much more about these issues can be found hyperlinked at Peace in Kurdistan. More at Anarchy in Action.

The latter site reports, quoting Rafael Taylor: "The PKK itself has apparently taken after their leader, not only adopting Bookchin's specific brand of eco-anarchism, but actively internalizing the new philosophy in its strategy and tactics. The movement abandoned its bloody war for Stalinist/Maoist revolution and the terror tactics that came with it, and began pursuing a largely non-violent strategy aimed at greater regional autonomy." Ocalan calls this participation "democratic confederalism."

Since I wrote this, Turkey is bombing the Kurds in its zone in retaliation, supposedly, for ISIS. This cynical strategy is payback for Kurdish resistance, and the situation seems more dire than when I researched this two months ago. This dispirits me, and again, I wonder about self-defense against such overwhelming odds. Yet, unlike the Tibetans, say, surely some nations are arming many Kurds. 

You can support the people yourself. An autonomous university is opening and needs books and Kindles. A People's Library seeks stock to counter the destruction visited upon such centers by ISIS. Liberation can happen, the authors admit, as long as Western supporters and allies do not waste time over-analyzing the diverse roots of the struggle, rather than come to its practical, not theoretical, aid.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lex Bayer + John Migdor's "Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart": Book Review

If you don't believe in God or gods, what then? Stanford humanist chaplain Migdor and his colleague, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Lex Bayer, offer a reasonable, calmly argued, and philosophically constructed set of Ten "Non-commandments" aimed to guide the growing numbers of non-believers along a straightforward path.

The first five emerge from atheist tenets based on observable reality to distinguish truth from false claims. Data and evidence derive from what can be tested and what is open to verification, correction, rejection, or acceptance. Basically and unsurprisingly, the authors establish that truth-claims about divine existence fail to explain why one manifestation is to be proven among myriad competitors past and present, and they offer a stimulating analogy to a "religious lottery" (50). A secular spin on Pascal's wager, this game of chance means no believer in this life can be sure that his or her choice will "pay off" as opposed to competing versions of a deity or gods. Religion is redefined as a "set of starting assumptions" rather than truth-claims able to be verified. God, the authors assert, is an assumption rather than a belief. (53) "Beliefs are simply inserted into a space left empty by a lack of effort." (136) Strong words in a generally genial study. However, Bayer and Migdor roll out a logical response that confirms that belief in an unseen presence with the names we are most familiar with is no different than that which insists elves or Thor or Babalú must exist.

There may endure a "high level of confidence" among atheists (whom they align more or less with humanists and agnostics early on if with some slight delineation) that God may not exist. But the writers also agree with Richard Dawkins' 6.9 (who ranks himself on his scale, 7 as total non-belief) that the odds are stacked against divine existence. Still, logically total certainty can never be claimed.

The second half of this brief book articulates the humanist comfort gained when one acts to increase the well-being and happiness of others, and so ensures more contentment for one's self. No facile reduction to Utilitarianism, yet this asserts a thoughtful consideration of how we may treat each other better. I found the tone shift here, as a more relaxed, expansive attitude appeared to replace the rigor of the preceding section. I was not sure if one author took charge of one part more than the other, or if the subject matter created its own mood, but it was noticeable from the start of the ethical portion.

Overall, this is very readable. I expected a refutation of the classic ontological arguments of Anselm, the teleological and cosmological ones of Aquinas, the argument from design by Paley. But no trace of these terms, or even Primum Mobile or uncaused cause, watchmakers or a 747 in a junkyard can be found. So, this may fit the needs as the authors encourage of more of a self-study book for those needing reflection and direction towards a more articulate type of non-belief. Two pages are included so you can make up your own tenets to mull over, for in this process, the authors find their own rationales have been tested and made stronger. I like the conversations they have with each other that show how one person's range of subjective views build up one's moral standards. They refuse any universal objective set of morals can be defined. I wish more depth had been given to the common challenges to this, and in the "Common Religious Objections" to some of the venerable theorems for God's existence. For, these will be faced by nearly anyone tackling this in conversation or debate with Christian believers. Only one medieval thinker is mentioned. Cleverly, Ockham's Razor is applied to advance the logical preference for the simplest explanation for what we observe, God-free.

Bayer and Migdor favor reasonable interactions, to strengthen community, and a just, rational society. They turn to the case of the Boston bomber who hid under a boat and wrote on its hull a literally "unintelligible" scrawl justifying in the name of Allah the immoral action perpetuated by "heinous acts" such as the bombers carried out. (117) This haunting comparison reminds readers of the irrational motives which continue to attempt to rally people in a supposedly advanced century to take on outmoded and illogical rationales to perpetrate violence upon those outside their own belief system. Such fanatics chant the name of one of the many competing versions of God or gods which Migdor and Bayer seek to prove as false. (Amazon US 12-11-14; Vote for beliefs; author's website)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Robin Le Poidivin's "Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)This is a densely written, concentrated set of chapters by a British professor of metaphysics, reading like a series of lectures. Robin Le Poidevin balances theist and atheist perspectives as expected, while claiming ground for agnosticism as a respected and defensible perspective, rather than the one despised by some non-believers and dismissed as waffling by many believers. He reasons calmly and doggedly, in a philosophical tone. For me, some of this material was compressed too much, but I cannot be too harsh on the constraints, after all, of these erudite primers.

Yes, Bertrand Russell's teapot is here, and Carl Sagan's dragon, and from these, after a brisk introduction to the history of the concept, the author delves into the presumption of atheism if God's existence remains unproven. Then, he examines positive arguments for agnosticism, or whether it's based on a mistake. Faith, morals, and scientific theory follow, to see if these rest on grounds compatible with or conflicting with what may be false conceptions of agnosticism. Can you live religiously while remaining agnostic? Should schools teach agnosticism? What about religions: do these come across best when taught from an agnostic perspective? You get Pascal's Wager handled deftly, and you also get a nod to zombies.

All these topics gain some attention in 150-odd pages. I found this stimulating, and one part helps me in discussing the existence of evil with students. Le Poidevin wonders as to the "superfluity" of evil in nature, not only human but in the physical realm, if this might be an answer, from a believer's point-of-view, in why bad things exist in nature beyond the fault of what can be blamed on human action or inaction. "In so far as the world and its inhabitants are the product of blind (although not random) forces, it is up to us to shape them as we see fit. What good there is must come from us. Any indication that it will come from elsewhere might lead us into dangerous passivity. It is as if (so the story goes) God intends us to look at the world and feel alone, for only then will we realize that it is up to us to make heaven on earth." (75) That's a sample of the book's style.

As he presents agnosticism, it's "namely an uncertainty as to whether there is, or is not, a being that is quite independent of any human thought or activity, a being that would, if we understood its nature, provide a single unified explanation of why the world exists, what we are doing in it, and how we should live. That issue will not go away, even if every theologian decided to ignore it." (86) In such a direct, accessible style, Le Poidevin sets out his case. This compliments Julian Baggini's "Atheism" in this same "Very Short Introduction" series very elegantly, by the way (also reviewed by me). It's a pleasure to find such contributions that respect all sides in this eternal debate with consideration, tact, and seriousness.(Amazon US 8-5-15)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Is chlé-libraíoch mé

Measaim go mise a gcéanna faoi deireadh. Nuair bím ag smaoineamh faoi chúrsaí polaitíulái, ar an laghad. Thúg mé tráth na gceist an mí seo caite, mar shampla. 

Mar is féidir leat a fheichéail, is chlé-libraíoch anseo. Bhí léite agam go leor faoi ainrialachas ar feadh na blianta beaga anuas. Go hairithe os rud Occupy i 2011. 

D'fhoghlaim mé go bhfuil mé idir libraíochas agus sóisaleachas ar an iarmhéid. Roimh seo, thuig mé go bhfuil mé ar an chlé. Ach, níl me ar an thaobh na láimhe deise de réir na libraíoch, gan amhras.

Go teoiriciúil, seasamh mé i measc iad siúd nach bhfuil bhfabhar ceannairí tofa. Go fírinne, is maith liom ag staonadh ó vótáil d'iarrthóirí i dtóghcháin móra. Níl maith liom an dá phríomh-páirithe i náisiún seo.

Mar sin féin, caithfidh mé a chinneadh ag déanamh i 2016. Bíonn iarrthóir nua ó na Sóisialaithe anois--ach tá sé ag rith mar Daonlathaigh. Ní aontaim le roinnt na chuid ardán, ach aointaim le go leor de na sé. Beidh mé a feiceáil go luath má mhaireann sé an bliain seo chugainn.  

Left-libertarian me.

I judge that I myself am the same lately. When I think about political matters, at any rate. I took this
quiz last month, for example. 

As you can see, I am left-libertarian here. I had read a lot about anarchism during the past few years. Especially since Occupy in 2011. 

I learned that I am between libertarianism and socialism on the balance. Before this, I understood that I am on the left. But, I am not on the side of the right-hand regarding the libertarians, no doubt. 

In theory, I stand among those who do not favor elected leaders. Certainly, I like abstention from voting for candidates in major elections.  I do not like the two major parties in this nation. 

All the same, I must choose what to do in 2016, There is a new candidate from the Socialists now--but he is running as a Democrat. I do not agree with some of his platform, but I agree with much of it. I will see soon if he lasts the next year.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Christopher Hitchens' "Arguably": Book Review

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens [Hardcover]I miss Hitchens. I used to look forward to his book reviews in The Atlantic, and when I'd pick up an occasional copy of Vanity Fair, his opinions on whatever he found worthy kept my interest. Even if "Why Women Aren't Funny" in 2007 famously fell flat, in re-reading it within this massive anthology of his journalism from the last period of his life, a more sly sense of him putting us on appears.

He reminds me in this compilation of George Orwell, a forebear to whom he nods often. Like Orwell, he takes on literature, popular culture, current events, history, and politics with equal assurance. I cannot think of a writer addressing a wide if educated audience today his peer when it comes to his breadth. He compares 1984 to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in its prescience as to how a totalitarian system can exert itself and how a Reformation can erupt. He notes the same nom de guerre employed by Edmund Burke and, of all people, Rosa Luxemburg. As a former Marxist and one who knows how Trots work, he nods to how radicals frequently assume the worst possible motive of an opponent is his or her correct one. He notices how Rebecca West's sentences accumulate reflection as do Paul Scott's, so at the price of verisimilitude, a necessary chance for explanation and reflection unfolds.

Hitchens even connects Hitler's efflorescence to the moth found in the throat of a female victim in The Silence of the Lambs. Such a range merits awe. Hitchens rarely strains for the fancy phrase, but the scope of his exploration of how we think, act, and write deserves acclaim, even if you disagree. He shows deftly how Lincoln shifted the way we use the United States itself, from "are" to "is" to portray its unity after the Civil War. Speaking of war, he ends his introduction to West's Black Lamb, Grey Falcon by rallying his own allegiance to stand up for a righteous cause. She was "one of those people, necessary in every epoch, who understood that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for." (221) However, in 2007 he seems to regret  his support for the first Gulf War.

"I was among those who thought and believed and argued that this example [of U.S. implementation of a "you-fly-you-die zone" over Iraqi Kurdistan] could, and should, be extended to the rest of the country: this cause became a consuming thing in my life. To describe the ensuing shambles as a disappointment or a failure or even a defeat  would be the weakest statement I could possibly make: It feels more like a sick, choking nightmare of betrayal from which there can be no awakening."(521)

These essays and pieces roam widely. They begin with American politics and history. then English literature, observations on mores and manners, foreign policy, "legacies of totalitarianism," and defenses of free speech as PC-speak inhibits bold journalism. He predicts: "Within a short while,--this is a warning--the shady term 'Islamophobia' is going to be smuggled through our customs. Anyone accused of it will be politely but firmly instructed to shut up, and to forfeit the constitutional right to criticize religion. By definition, anyone accused in this way will also be implicitly guilty." He finds presciently in an attempt to alert the world to the danger of letting fanatics shut down the Danish press for cartoons judged offensive in 2007, that "American Muslim leaders" are canny. He cites the NY Times in explaining how PR spin is spun. ''They have 'managed to build effective organizations and achieve greater integration, acceptance and economic success than their brethren in Europe have. They portray the cartoons as part of a wave of global Islamophobia and have encouraged Muslim groups in Europe to use the same term.' In other words, they are leveraging worldwide Islamic violence to drop a discreet message into the American discourse." (706)

While inevitably some entries feel lightweight, or seem already dated as to once-current events they may lack the impact of his more detailed critiques, the collection rewards one's attention. Hitchens strives to answer his critics fairly and patiently, and he keeps alive his measured wit along with a winning sense of his own failings as he struggles to make sense of our world. (Amazon US 4/5/15)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bernie Sanders at the L.A. Sports Arena

 Bernie Sanders in Los Angeles

Only two domestic-born movements have compelled me in my own life enough to volunteer. In this blog, I have written about my participation in Occupy LA nearly four years ago. Last night, my wife convinced me to accompany her to help out at the rally for Bernie Sanders at the L.A. Sports Arena.

I had only been there a few times. Maybe a circus when I was a kid or with a kid or two, in my meat-munching decades, before I could no longer visit either circuses or zoos.  I attended a graduation held there once for where I teach. My former colleague and I sat high in the back of the bleachers and chatted the whole time, such was the roar of the voices in the cavernous acoustic dome. It's now woebegone, bought as the Coliseum by USC but otherwise little used for much, and no pro sports, for the billionaires want their own stadia, their own branded monuments to greed a mile away.

This is what Sanders opposes. He spoke an hour on the dot to a fervent crowd. My wife and I got folks to register for the mailing list, and among the 213 volunteers who showed up on little notice at 2:30, we were happily a diverse crowd, although one you'd have seen at Occupy or any lefty rally. Still, the vast "demographics" of the SoCal region were represented, and unions, students both shaggy and preppy, frat boys and mohawked gender-benders, Latino families and black activists, people fresh from dressing up for their day job and plenty of paunchy folks in "Feel the Bern" t-shirts rushed to hear him. A genial crowd, and as the LA. Times reported, one stretching back to the Coliseum itself.

Only white t-shirts were left to sell. The organizer lacked a portable microphone and many could not hear him. We ran out of stickers to give to supporters. Only xeroxed b/w handouts in tiny squares cut by hand told the curious about where to go online to learn more or volunteer. But we were informed that all the domains had been bought up, so somehow, those so moved would find an online Bernie. 

My wife and I discussed on the way home, caught in heavy traffic due to the rally, the prospects of what she termed "an exercise in futility." Long before she could vote, she cherished the McGovern '72 jersey she still had. Apropos, I had not voted but once, in '92, for a winning President, and she had a few more notches in her belt as she supported the Democratic candidate in the past three winning elections, whereas I, after the Greens in '94 qualified for our state's ballot, grudgingly backed them.

Not that I am thrilled about everything on the blue side of the ticket. My own left-libertarian leanings clash with a very strict view on immigration legal as well as illegal, tilted if at all towards Canada and Australia's restrictions for age, occupation, and education, rather than our endless chain migration and reunification, which only to me encourages people to enter less qualified for contributing practically to our society and economy; it also meshes with my environmental views and my ZPG bent. Qualities likely to be found hardly at all in my peers. As I say, I'm the only electric car owner who did not vote for our incumbent. Still, I cannot wait for a perfect candidate, and we all compromise when voting.

Getting back to Bernie, I noted the crowd cheered loudly for the young woman speaking of her success who came here "sin papeles," and his platform naturally includes this reform. He also wants to overturn Citizens United, to another loud round of applause. I wondered how the unions who thronged to see him speak would handle that; for me I reckon they and the vexing pension issue do cloud the issue of budgets. I also speculated many of the young Latinos might have been encouraged to attend by their UTLA teachers, for extra credit in civics. If so, it'd nonetheless made a great lesson in participation and spectacle. But if he won, if that is, he'd likely take the income from the fat-cats, in democratic-socialist leaning ways, and redistribute it to make public colleges free, make campaigns publicly funded, and to eliminate overseas tax shelters and the insane military spending we accrue.

He gave his standard stump speech. It was clear, as he inserted along "my home state of Vermont" (although his accent verified his Brooklyn birth), whenever he mentioned L.A. or California. He spoke about five minutes per topic as enumerated below, and it was well-organized and accessible.

His policies raised in me no surprise. Here they are for convenience. He got a thunderous response for berating a government that locks up a kid for pot possession but lets off Wall Street bankers, and certainly this 73-year-old's populism resounded in the arena of 17,500 and 10k more outside.
Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, reminds readers in the same paper, after two women purporting to be from Black Lives Matter prevented him from speaking in Seattle last Sunday: "Sanders has charm, but the Jewish socialist transplant from Brooklyn has spent his political life in a state that has only 7,500 blacks. He lacks the vocabulary to appeal beyond the white left. Meanwhile, the black left, an indispensable voting bloc, has no standard-bearer in the primaries and is clearly angry about it. Clinton's most comfortable in the role of elitist technocrat, which is great for fundraising from Wall Street and wooing Beltway journalists, but it's not so useful for wooing voters in a populist environment. Thanks to her husband, she still has goodwill among African Americans. But she lacks the charisma, passion or personal story to excite either the black left or the white left. The woman who left the White House 'dead broke' makes five times the average American's annual income per speech." That is the next challenge, even if Bernie took pains as did the volunteer coordinator to avoid any mention of her or Democrat oligarchs, while castigating of course the GOP.

During a lull before the speech, I read a few pages of Raoul Vaneigem's The Book of Pleasures. This former Situationist refuses to vote in his native Belgium, "In the speaker, listen for the distant echo which declares against him." I suppose that echo last night was not only GOP or HRC, but the few who wonder, as I often do, the anarchist slogan "If voting would change anything, it'd be illegal."

Realistically it's a long shot for Sanders. Pundits keep warning he will hit a ceiling of progressive support and stall. I fear a Ron Paul parallel, from an upstart who channels and crests discontent but who fails to garner delegates; also, a party to whom a fringe contender is anathema compared to a Romney or a Bush, or, again, a Clinton. In the Huffington Post, Michael Brenner cautions an earlier prefiguration: "Sanders might be playing Gene McCarthy to Biden's Robert Kennedy in 1968. Biden is no Bobby Kennedy; but then Hillary is no LBJ." Funny as that was the first election I recall, and my parents debating Nixon and Humphrey's chances, and watching the death reports on MLK and RFK on the black and white tv in our blue-collar house. No wonder I grew up cynical about change.

I have, as I mentioned, rarely or never seen a winning candidate, in my childhood or after I came of age, whom I could trust. I recognized early on Bill Clinton's appeal. In the first Dem debate in the '92 race, I sensed this unknown (to me) would win, even as he was dwarfed among seven contenders. I never, all the same, trusted him very much. By his second campaign, I had tired of his wiliness. His wife, with her fixed stewardess mien and dead eyes (I have heard of two people who met our current president, and they both told me he smiles without his eyes going along with it), fails to fool me.

In Sanders, beneath bluster he keeps his own tempered, diplomatic caution. We were instructed as we volunteered, not to speak of, let alone ill of, the presumed Democratic winner. Bernie went on stage, as his press release verifies, "in a hoarse shout,: to proclaim that 'this country belongs to all of us and not a handful of billionaires. We need a grassroots political revolution.'” I am not sure such rhetoric will withstand the fury with which HRC and the DNC will inflict upon him soon, but for now, as she bides her time, Sanders is making himself hoarse berating those of the other party who claim to defend family values, while, like Hillary herself even if it is not spoken, being funded by plutocrats.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Christopher Hitchens' "The Missionary Position": Book Review

Reading this on my Kindle, I was surprised it ended so suddenly. I wanted more. Subsequent events since this appeared in 1995 show that Mother Teresa is on the fast track to canonization after her 1997 death led to her 2003 beatification. In retrospect, the furor over Christopher Hitchens' little book reveals a more-carefully considered study of her media impact and the finagling of her financial empire behind a sort of calculated willful ignorance. He starts each section with apt and clever quotations from earlier skeptics and in tying the Albanian woman to cronies as far-flung and as dreadfully connected to filthy lucre such as Duvaliers in Haiti, Hitchens makes the case with wit but also sorrow that so many of us fell for this.

The money amassed by the millions, the donations to her by Charles Keating of some of the $250+ million he gained by fraud and deceit, and the destitution in which both the Sisters of her Missionaries of Charity and those whom they care for are skillfully narrated and analyzed by Hitchens. As in much of his journalism, he can show signs of too brisk or showy a dash over territory that requires slow navigation. The Albanian context examined late on saps the momentum of his earlier chapters, although his interest in the Balkans surely contributed to his decision to cover this.

His moral is simple. “The rich world likes and wishes to believe that someone, somewhere, is doing something for the Third World. For this reason, it does not inquire too closely into the motives or practices of anyone who fulfills, however vicariously, this mandate.” We shift a guilty conscience to the admittedly devoted Missionaries of her Order, he suggests, and we let them and its idolized founder act in the name of an apostolate that, however well intended, manipulates the poor to score points against contraception and abortion but neglects any critique of overpopulation. Poverty rather than fought against is embraced. While the Sisters may accept this, their patients, Hitchens reasons, may not.

After all, as a noted atheist, Hitchens has the advantage of standing apart from such as Malcolm Muggeridge, a journalist predecessor who was taken in by her glow, attributing a miracle not to Kodak film stock but to Mother Teresa's intervention while she was alive to illuminate an interior. Against such shenanigans. a rationalist like Hitchens offers a counter-argument, lest the credulous trust too much in clerical leaders like her.

“It is often said, inside the Church and out of it, that there is something grotesque about lectures on the sexual life when delivered by those who have shunned it. Given the way that the Church forbids women to preach, this point is usually made about men. But given how much this Church allows the fanatical Mother Teresa to preach, it might be added that the call to go forth and multiply, and to take no thought for the morrow, sounds grotesque when uttered by an elderly virgin whose chief claim to reverence is that she ministers to the inevitable losers in this very lottery.”

While some of this spirited polemic rushes by too rapidly, Hitchens provides a look at what is necessary. Believers in this mission may cringe or carp. But a service, however cattily aimed at generating controversy from the title on, is rendered. The faithful need to heed views of such skeptics. (8-7-15 to Amazon US.) P.S. After her planned canonization, in 2016, see Eamonn McCann in The Irish Times, and in Salon, George Gillett.

Friday, August 7, 2015

John Neeleman's "Logos": Book Review

Extrapolating the accounts of the Jewish War by Josephus with what we know of Saul-turned-Paul, the tension between his mission to the Gentiles with the Hebrew-centered Christian cult of James, the brother of Jesus, the ministry of the man born as Yeshua himself, and the influences of Philo of Alexandria, the Sicarii rebels against Rome, and the Essenes, as well as imperial machinations, this novel takes on a complicated situation. Perhaps gleaning hints how a pre-synoptic ur-gospel [called Q if not here but by German critics 160 years ago] came to be imagined and composed, John Neeleman presents his reconstruction in a sprawling tale. He makes a clever case for his bold theory of origins.

Jacob ben Aaron rises up in the higher ranks of those centered around Temple ritual in Jerusalem. Starting around the year we know as 46 when he was born, this focuses on the great revolt which for a time drove back the Romans who sought to crush Palestinian resistance. Frustrated by Hebrew intransigence, the rulers who collaborate with Rome make a convincing argument for capitulation, so as to keep a limited form of autonomy. But radicals take the lead and spark insurgency, hating Rome. Jacob learns to carry this revenge himself after sufferings hit home. To avoid spoilers, let's say that he is affected deeply and, caught up in the revolt, he survives partially driven by his own desire to fight back. He wanders from the fallen Temple around Roman territory. This allows Neeleman to introduce him and us to the teachings of the Essenes, the thoughts of the Persian Magi, the ideas of the desert Ishmaelites, and the philosophy of the Hellenized Hebrews who studied in Alexandria. All these, with a hint of Egyptian myth, build upon Jacob's childhood preparation in the Torah and the classics alike.

Neelemen cleverly creates a protagonist eager for knowledge of both great systems, sacred and profane, Greek and Hebrew, and by taking them in, he can integrate them, while remaining somewhat doubtful about the power of his traditional beliefs. At one low point, the theodicy he challenges "all seemed contradictory and an extended rationalization for failure." The "same formula," as he is told by one mentor of many, repeats the story of a nobleman anointed before being cast into the wilderness, only to overcome deprivation to be revealed "as the savior of humankind and the bearer of a word and bringer of a new and better age." This realization enables him to be open to syncretic patterns, as Jacob watches the Christian sect grow, and witnesses when Rome tries to come to terms with this restive message of liberation from outmoded ways. Jacob is well-placed to take advantage. 

"Logos is order. Logos is balance, measure for measure. Wisdom is understanding the Logos." Jacob hears this translated from lofty concepts to clever realpolitik by one well placed to put this into effect. The demand is that while "the will to power, desire, money, sex" may all be "stigmatized" as passions unbecoming the new world order, the fulfillment will entice many into the embrace of "good news."

Neelemen lines up many personages, and while their conversations as in such accounts may imitate the didacticism and erudite tone of the classic and ancient tellers in his own prose, this stately pace does blend with the feel of an antiquated chronicle. The expository content, as many doctrines, disputes, and dissidents have their lengthy say--often with citing Scripture as readily as does Jacob the epics--slows modern expectations. But judiciously dramatized battle scenes, frank but honest sexual encounters, and a determination to endure make Jacob's journeys worthwhile, especially after he must leave his hometown of Jerusalem. This mixes a coming-of-age saga with an novel of ideas, too. To sum up, if you wish an expansive but thoughtful examination of how Christianity might have evolved in its earliest days, as one man in the flesh became the creator of the word as Logos, it's here.
(Amazon US 3-10-15)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

William T. Vollmann's "The Dying Grass": Book Review

At about a page a mile, this epic doggedly charts the forced retreat of the Nez Perce during more than 1300 miles and seventy-five days in 1877. Under General Oliver Otis (or as his weary "Bluecoats" in "Indian Service" call him, "Uh-Oh") Howard, the U.S. Army pursued those members of the tribe who refused pacification and Christianization on the reservation. They reject the "thief treaty" and despise relegation to the "painted land." They vow to resist Cut Arm, as they call Howard, and his troops. In the fifth installment of his Seven Dreams series dramatizing encounters between native and settler peoples in North America, William T. Vollmann speaks in more than the narrative voice of his own witness, "William the Blind." After all, hundreds of characters populate his lively tale, alternating between Bluecoats, the People as they call themselves, and the Bostons, their name for the whites who settle, eliminating one nation for a larger, rapacious one. There is never enough land to share among them. The empire pushes westward, without pause.

Two soldiers reason it out. "They expect to roam wherever they please, living on buffalo and what not. That means nobody can farm there. It's got to be them or us." Their foe cannot remain there.

Vollmann in previous volumes in this series, which he started over a quarter-century ago, has explored crucial initial contacts in this transformation of the continent over more than a millennium. He began with the Norse and natives in today's Maritime Provinces. He followed with dramatizations of the clashes between the peoples of Virginia and John Smith's Jamestown colonists, between French Jesuits and the warring nations of Canada, and between the First Nations of the Arctic and those traders past and present, who exploit resources of the Far North. All incorporate meticulous research.

In each novel, he blends his own stance as "William the Blind" with diligent attention to the historical record. In The Dying Grass, he expands this archival fidelity deftly. Much of the dialogue and many of the thoughts attributed to his characters are integrated from a wide array of sources. Vollmann therefore makes our history as Americans come alive. You never feel when reading this Seven Dreams series that figures are propped up as talking mannequins. Vollmann masters his process: he makes his characters sound like us (if properly bound to their time, place, limitations, and idioms).

The manner this verisimilitude emerges in this latest volume deserves acclaim. Vollmann innovates. He pushes the space on the page. The deeper we get into a character's mind, the farther right we shift. Dialogue, free of quotation marks or any dashes, begins on the left. Interruptions external or internal drift, and then interior monologues or asides embed themselves further as the reader wanders towards the center of the book, the right margin. That margin is always unpredictable, for it falls down, near the gutter of the spine, until it stops and the reader returns to the left again, and more dialogue begins.

These conversations take us into the petty details on each side of the conflict. Soldiers bicker, boast, and bitch. Native women mock those who pursue them, and defend their men, for as Dreamers they unite around their tradition, and they defy those among them and beyond them who brandish the Bible, the "Book of Light" as the authority who replaces their "Wyakin" for guidance. Over it all, the purple mountains and pink sunsets continue, apart from those feuding and fighting far below. Vollmann draws us in to these conflicts, by masterfully drawn battle re-creations that show his talent for sudden action, a theme he has not been able to expand upon in many of past novels as he can here.

Homeric may be an overused adjective, but in the catalogs of warriors, soldiers, and their women, repeated in the solemn cadenced tone of the People or the dutifully diplomatic reports submitted by their persecutors, this term serves as a worthy comparison for this fictional account taken from factual inspiration. A bit shorter than Tolstoy's novel on war obliterating peace, The Dying Grass depicts how everyday people get swept up into tragedy, forced to choose sides as the enemy comes.

Although the fate of the Nez Perce under the man we know as Chief Joseph is a foregone conclusion, what is lesser known, and therefore animates tension, is the evasion some of the Nez Perce manage. They flee across the Medicine Line, as they call it, into the Old Woman's Country, that of Canada. But their enemy Sitting Bull has established his own redoubt already. Soon the Nez Perce must file back across the border. There they are rounded up and sent off to the Hot Land of Kansas. They sell themselves as chattel to the clutches of a white man, or their trinkets and photos to souvenir seekers.

Never romanticizing either side, Vollmann remains alert to the nuances of violence. The Bannocks who follow the Bluecoats, and later the Crows, also revenge themselves on the Nez Perce. They in turn, while innocent of the charges cast on them by the U.S. Government, may choose to murder innocent Bostons. Their pleas, no less than those of the People whose women and children may be roasted alive in the heat of battle or the coldness of calculation by Bluecoats, may find only cruel listeners. Mercies are shown to scattered enemies, but as in any war, these may be outnumbered by vengeance. Orders on both sides attempt but fail to prevent looting, desecration, and grave robbing.

These gaps between a relentless force who must have the natives' land, who must violate the terms of the treaty that gave that remnant to the Nez Perce, and who will not let their beleaguered people cross into Canada widen. On the other side, the Dreamers dwindle, and no home for them remains at all. They try to talk to the Bluecoats and the Bostons, but among both contenders, those out for profit and for land-grabbing take charge. The Nez Perce, outnumbered and facing their own tribal enemies now allied with the Government, can neither find rescue in the Montana wilderness nor Canadian camps. The mechanized nature of the Government, after the debacles of the Civil War, now rolls over any opposition within the ranks. Cut Arm and his Bluecoats serve a master back East, not their own will.

Vollmann fairly, as with Howard, shows the complexity of these negotiations. The General, who lost an arm in the "Secession" War, had run the Freedmen's Bureau for former slaves afterwards. His generosity founded the university that bears his surname, but his reputation as one too sympathetic to the blacks and then the Indians, in the eyes of many watching in Washington D.C., follows Howard. By the end, as the Nez Perce are shipped to the Northwest after their Indian Territory exile, they look in calico, drab colors, and shawls as colorless and bland as the freed slaves had to General Howard.

Depravity haunts many in Federal uniform. It also implicates some of those in the garb of the newcomer, and some of those who must don that garb. As converts under coercion, the Dreamers must accept the Book of Light, or be cast off to an even more dilapidated reservation with Chief Joseph, lest they contaminate their Americanized and Bible-toting former brethren. Disease, hunger, and heartbreak reduce the ranks of the defiant Dreamers. Nearly three-quarters of their reservation is soon sold as "surplus land" to Bostons. The children of the People, once Dreamers dwindle, are taught the ways of their conquerors at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Vollmann notes as of twenty years ago how fewer than three dozen Nez Perce had kept any fluency in their old language.

Throughout, key interpreters such as Umatilla Jim and Ad Chapman are called on to intervene; the surrender speech attributed to Chief Joseph barely registers here, within the cross-chatter and interference between the victors and their vanquished. Lieutenant Wood, an intriguingly sympathetic listener to the plight of those whom he pursues, polishes up Joseph's words for pomp and posterity.

Out of faded tintypes, military memoirs, charts and news clippings, ethnographies and museum artifacts, Vollmann retells one of the most famous, and infamous, struggles between the invading and the indigenous peoples of the Old West. This demands concentration. After a couple of hundred pages, such is its sprawl, the reader learns to read as Vollmann wants. The tiny print represents the spirit of those who, overwhelmed by the spaces they seek to survive within and thrive wherein, try to speak, think, and dream, as they survive or succumb within its intricate, dense plot. This novel tests patience, but true to Vollmann's unrelenting craft, the author insists that every word he publishes deserves to be left as it is, defying editors or us. The Dying Grass resists satisfactory replication in this format, with our margins that corral and tame its inventive prose on a open-ended page. Like the unfenced West, his novel roams freely, evading control of the mechanical hand and conforming style.
(Amazon US 7-28-15; PopMatters 8-10-15)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Eleventh Dream Day's "Works for Tomorrow": Music Review

cover artThis Chicago band confessed on the liner notes of their first album a problem turned solution. After trying half the night to fix feedback on an amp, Eleventh Dream Day gave in. They left the distortion in, and made Prairie School Freakout a lo-fi success back in 1987.

Since then, major league releases on Atlantic followed. But by the mid-90s, as college rock faded, the band found itself back in the minors. There, they released some of their finest work. Ursa Major and Eighth feature moments of rushed intensity, soaring beauty, and sonic landscapes both  raw and delicate. While under the tutelage of Tortoise and Sonic Youth member Jim O'Rourke, the band shifted into a more electronic mode for Zeroes and Ones, I found that their least engaging record. Frequently incorporating the guitar assault of Neil Young into a heartland version of rock, the band, shakes off its torpor. Releasing its albums now on Thrill Jockey, EDD taps the renewed energy evident on their last album, Riot Act, with Works for Tomorrow, their latest studio effort.

Janet Beveridge Bean opens "Vanishing Point" with deft beats and boastful lyrics. Intertwined as well as separate from her partner, guitarist Rick Rizzo, the paired vocals remind me of Exene and John Doe in X. EDD channels the same intensity here. The title track, the roadhouse rowdy "Cheap Gasoline," and "Snowblind" follow smartly and loudly. "Go Tell It" settles for a bit of boogie rock; "The People's History" revisits post-punk. The first half of this album ranks with the best tracks from this veteran band's discography. The production feels as if recorded live, and the record crackles.

Fellow founding member Doug McCombs (also of Tortoise) adds depth on bass. Newer recruit Mark Greenberg on organ adds texture. Newest addition Jim Elkington handles not only piano and organ but guitar. This is the only time EDD added a second guitarist since 1994. The results prove fresh.

Eleventh Dream Day has long depended on the chemistry between Bean and Rizzo, backed by McCombs. While they never gained the acclaim they deserve, EDD delivers music grounded in heartache, defiance, and endurance. They blend touches of country, folk, the blues, and electronics into their indie-rock. Experimenting with more keyboard-driven arrangements during the past two decades, on Works for Tomorrow they find the right balance between studio exploration of tone and a live commitment to volume. Rizzo and Bean, trading off or alternating voices, enrich this exchange. 

Later on Works for Tomorrow, the band settles into slower moods. The final four songs take their time. “Requiem for 4 Chambers” suits its title, a more mournful pace that allows the keyboards more space to sink in. “Deep Lakes” conjures up as many of their past songs have a landscape in winter, desolate but with glimmers of beauty and hope. “End With Me” takes its time, too, opening up room to conclude this brief but deftly played album. When Bean and Rizzo ease into song before it, the ballad "The Unknowing," its wistful delivery recalls another longtime indie guitar-drummer combo, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo. Like X and YLT, EDD finds solace in togetherness, and the emotions massed by decades together seep into the grooves of this feisty, confident album. (As above 8-1-15 to Amazon US. In slightly altered form 7-29-15 to Spectrum Culture)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

John Lydon's "Anger is an Energy": Book Review

"In fact, I changed music twice." So claims John Lydon early in these five-hundred-plus pages of recollections. He later boasts that "I changed history." At fifty-seven, living in Malibu, the punk provocateur enjoys sailing and loafing, far from the "dustbin" he came from in London, a son among many in an Irish immigrant family. As he explains the title of his second memoir, Anger is an Energy, Lydon reminds readers that he channels anger for neither hatred nor violence, but to motivate principled, sensible change.

As he covered his upbringing and his career with the Sex Pistols in Rotten: No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish (1994), Lydon may repeat tales of his formative years here. He attempts to get the record straight; he castigates Jon Savage's England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (1991) for its distortions. Lydon's reminiscences, which may provide less insight than expected to audiences who have scoured Savage's book and other chronicles of punk's heyday, nonetheless capture his playful, wry voice.

This book, set down by journalist Andrew Perry, does capture many moments when Lydon enriches our understanding. He speculates on what "a bitter, twisted fuck" he must have appeared at Malcolm McLaren and Vivianne Westwood's SEX boutique as the band was formed. He explains why safety pins were sported. "It was about fallout, having an instant repair kit for when Viv's goods fell apart."

Later, he judges that her "aesthetic counted more to her than the actual physicality of a human being." At ground zero for the punk boom, Lydon narrates McLaren's manipulation of him and his bandmates. He struggled against his wishes, and the other Pistols. He articulates that "my songs don't lecture, they give you freedom of thought, inside of the agenda I'm pushing." He makes enemies. But these are not people, but institutions. Placing no faith in political parties or armed resistance, he instead urges his audience to follow his lead. He forges, in his estimation, a daily struggle with "integrity" to banish a "witch-hunt" against dissenters, freaks, and those the system crushes or hates.

Lydon challenges "punk as a standardized uniform" worn by those with no insights into non-conformity. When it comes to punk, "there are no rules." His disgust with the "Boo Nazis" who replaced the movement's open-mindedness with "rules and regulations" led him to Public Image Ltd.

As for music and the message: "If you're not doing this for the poor old biddy that lives next door and can't afford the heating in the winter, then you don't count at all. Studded leather jackets for all is not a creed I can endorse." Here, you hear Lydon's humanism, the commonsense beneath his sly stance.

He also offers insights into fellow musicians and singers caught up in the spotlight. Not only towards his friends, humble or famous, and his rancorous bandmates, but to such figures as Joe Strummer. Lydon contrasts the isolation of the Clash, who sought fame and big-label success, with the purported socialism and sloganeering that, in his opinion, made them a caricature of the values they mouthed.

Breaking with such contradictions, PiL sought to reform the way bands made music. This is the second of the changes Lydon promoted. He attempted collaboration with Jah Wobble and Keith Levine, two strong-willed individuals. Drugs, egos, and drink worsened the communal situation soon. But the band's second album, Metal Box (1979), issued by musicians barely out of their teens, "is a stunningly beautiful tapestry of high anxiety." They never reached this peak again, and soon, despite what in Lydon's terms appears to be a misunderstanding of their mission, PiL soon became a series of musicians backing whatever the singer felt he wanted to do in the studio and live. Lydon worked with some stunning talent, such as guitarist John McGeoch, but the band never recaptured its first spark.

Like this autobiography and like some of PiL's eclectic earlier music, this narrative resists linear fluidity through italicized interspersions. These deal with his wife Nora (whose daughter, Ari Up, was a founding member of the Slits), Shakespeare, celebrity woes, and bad teeth among other topics. These short excursions lighten the weight of so much detail from Lydon, who appears to have kept journals and archives well in order to draw upon, decades later, in the preparation of this account.

As he admits halfway through: "But I digress here, Sorry, it's the way my brain works." By the mid-80s, Lydon warily suns himself in Venice Beach, determined to leave London for Los Angeles. Working with Ginger Baker, Steve Vai, Bill Laswell, and his band now consisting of Allan Dias, Lu Edmonds, Bruce Smith and McGeoch, Album (1986) defied its generic title and packaging. This line-up persisted until near the end of the decade, when again, PiL splintered and lost its direction.

While Lydon acknowledges the difficulties of funding and handling a fractious lot of musicians, he appears to judge PiL's later music as worthy of acclaim as its earlier recordings. To me, as a fan, I find Lydon faces a blind spot. The band's music after Wobble and Wardle fit more into eclectic rock, but it no longer felt as unclassifiable or as alien as Metal Box, despite that album's humble budget.

However, Lydon understands the challenge. He muses: do people want the "scandal-mongering of a nineteen-year-old? Or do they want to go on a journey of self-discovery?" PiL contributes to the soundtrack of Point Break, Lydon tries out for the cast of the film adaptation of Quadrophenia, and he announces on the inevitable Filthy Lucre reunion tour of the Pistols: "I'm fat, forty and back."

He contributes ads for Schlitz, Mountain Dew and English butter. He appears on a brief-lived Rotten TV on MTV.  He also graces I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and Judge Judy. He likes making nature documentaries: Megabugs, Shark Attack and Goes Ape. He roams about, doing what he likes in and out of music. Unfortunately, the production of Jesus Christ Superstar with him as Herod is cancelled just before it opens. He displays a likeable wit, and learns to handle his fame with grace.

Lydon sums up his legacy. "My songs were echoes of revolution and empathy for people, and certainly not the work of some sneery, selfish little toad." He ends this genial, if garrulous, tale by praising his family, insisting on privacy and celebrating his "hobby" of PiL. In the end, he seeks "nothing but joy to the world." Happy on the beach, caring for Nora's grandchildren, John Lydon lives as he pleases, and as fifty-odd years ago in North London tenements, as he had dreamed. (In slightly altered form to Spectrum Culture 7-30-15; with one word censored, to Amazon US 8-1-15)