Saturday, November 29, 2008

I Fake It So Real I Am Beyond Fake

Brad at Sadly, No!:

Has anyone else noticed that a lot of wingnut punditry consists mainly of lecturing everybody on the need to be self-reliant while simultaneously
begging for money? It’s almost like they don’t actually believe the stuff they’re writing…

I know it's an ingrained assumption for many liberals that everyone in the right-wing clown car - or at least those that have achieved some measure of fame and power - are only cynically pretending to believe shit that they laugh about in private, but it's a little too farfetched to think that they just put on the crazy person mask before they head out the door every morning, and revert back to a level of relative sanity at home to chortle over how they put one over on the rubes yet again. Brad may be kidding here, but it's a common knee-jerk reaction every time something is mentioned about one of the usual provacateurs: they're just in it for the money, they don't really believe that bullshit, Dubya only talks like he got kicked in the head by a horse in order to bond with all the genuine idiots, and so on.

If you've ever tried to be someone you're not, to act differently for the sake of impressing someone, say, you know how grueling it is to try to be of two minds. You can't just be natural, since you have to try to consciously maintain this fiction. You have to try to constantly look over your own shoulder, to think about how to act and speak rather than just doing it. At some point, if you don't just give up, it becomes far easier to convince yourself that the fiction is reality, hence the cognitive dissonance that makes our interactions with wingnut relatives so entertainingly surreal. Stephen Colbert is funny because he knows he's putting on an act, he's conscious of it and can play around with it. His role model, Bill O'Falafel, comes across as an impetuous, blustering asshole because he is one, he really believes his own bullshit. People don't get that hysterically defensive if they're just playing a role. He might suspect and fear somewhere deep down that he's a fraud, but he hasn't accepted it and come to peace with it, hence the fireworks any time he's challenged.

There's also the simple truth that a lot of people - perhaps most - are just plain stupid, dishonest and prone to putting themselves at the center of the universe. It's only hypocrisy when other people do it; there's always extenuating circumstances when their actions don't match up with their rhetoric. They lie to each other and themselves all the time, and they don't have the intellectual integrity to challenge their own assumptions for the sake of maintaining any sort of ideological consistency. They really are as stupid and incoherent as they appear; I don't know why people want to complicate the picture by attributing the self-awareness and intelligence to Limbaugh, Coulter, Malkin, O'Reilly, etc. necessary for living such a huge lie, turning it on and off at will, and in full public view, no less. Occam's Razor, people, use it. No need to imagine a clever, manipulating superego at work when a raw id will do just fine.

And ultimately, what the fuck does it matter? Does it make the slightest practical difference whether Ann Coulter believes her own ever-increasing hysterical slander, or whether James Dobson honestly believes in Jesus and thinks he's living a good Christian lifestyle? Does it harm the discourse any less whether Michael "Savage" Weiner is really a bloodthirsty fascist or just playing one on his radio show? Given the undeniable fact that people like them have thousands of followers who damn sure do think that way, why is it so hard to assume the same about the people at the head of the idiot parade? Why this obsession with secret motives, as if unmasking one individual's inauthenticity will somehow cause all their followers to rethink their assumptions? Did all the televangelist scandals of the '80s do anything to put a dent in the number of people willing to send money to a rich guy on tv waving a bible around?

It just seems to me that the left is going to have to find an effective way to engage this shit, as distasteful as it is, because scoffing and expecting the majority of people to see through it just isn't working.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Jesus Saves (By Clipping Coupons and Shopping Wisely)

Another contestant for the "Crazy, Cynical, or Just Plain Fucking Stupid?" guessing game. As always, I don't think the choices are mutually exclusive, but when it comes to the nonexistent War on the Winter Solstice, I do think it's more cynical than anything else. As many gleefully noted last year, Bill O'Falafel can't even be bothered to sell "Christmas" rather than "holiday" ornaments on his own website.

Henninger's column is only unique for the way he tries to find a way to blame the undependable laziness of loan-defaulting shiftless darkies on militant Northern atheists sticking it to big-box greeters. But as he well knows, and as Heywood points out again: it's the consumerism, stupid.

Department stores want to sell as much shit to as many people as they can, so of course they're always going to seek the path of least resistance, not wanting to drive potential customers away over something as trivial as the mumblings of an underpaid teenager or senior citizen standing at the front door. And maybe, just maybe, there is a basic sense of wanting to be respectful of all the different ways people spend this time of year, religious or not. How much of a twisted, rancid asshole do you have to be to convince yourself that that's a bad ideal to aim for?

And I've seen it myself - the same people who will talk over Thanksgiving dinner about their plans to boycott Best Buy over their use of "Happy Holidays" will go stand in the freezing rain outside of Wal-Mart at three a.m. the next morning and get into a fistfight over who gets to be the first one in the door to buy the electric back-hair shaver with extendable arm. What the fuck does any of this have to do with the supposed Christian virtues? As Nietzsche wondered in amazement back in the 1880s: when you see all the things that Christians gladly participate in along with all of us hellbound sinners, you have to wonder where they draw the line between themselves and the world. What does it even mean to call yourself a Christian when you don't do a single thing differently than the rest of us?

It's bad enough that these shitheads turn a genuinely beautiful time of year into yet another round of culture warfare just for kicks, but what really infuriates me is the way they deride the secularism that has, ironically, helped make Christianity the strong, vibrant social force it is here. I'd be glad to go the way of Europe and have an official national church if it meant that religion itself would wither and fade away as a consequence; you'd think these idiots could realize, as did early evangelicals in the late 1700s, that it's better for them if church and state stay as far apart as possible.

Christianity had about a 1500 year run of being synonymous with state power, and during that time, we never did see any of that peace and love stuff become official policy. In fact, as late as the 18th century, you could still have cases like the 21 year-old Thomas Aikenhead, executed for blasphemy. Or Jean Calas, posthumously found innocent after having been tortured to death. Or
Jean-François de la Barre, tortured, beheaded and burnt for the absolutely heinous, horrific crimes of not removing his cap for a religious procession, possessing a copy of a book by Voltaire, and being suspected of having vandalized a wooden crucifix. But in the 250 or so years since we separated church and state here, it's become common sense that killing someone over differing religious beliefs is unthinkable. Again, how much of a twisted, rancid asshole do you have to be to not be proud of that fact, let alone try to change it?

...adding, 11/29: We have met the barbarians at the gates, and they are us.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Now I'm a Believer, Not a Trace of Doubt in My Mind

While I'm on the subject...

I've always found it odd that the primary virtue in Christianity is belief. Credulity. Not intellect or moral actions, but ability to indefinitely exist in a state of ignorance without complaining. Those other things may be important, but without believing this particular story, without eliminating all doubt, no eternal bliss for you!

But belief is only a temporary measure, something only necessary until proof can be displayed. In any other context, what would we think of someone who insisted rather forcefully on the need for you to trust him, but seemed determined to string you along indefinitely?

1) You're walking along, minding your own business, when some dude comes up to you with his hand outstretched, which seems to be clenched around an object.
"Hey, buddy! Look here! See my hand? In it, I have a key to a storage facility that's packed to bursting with treasure beyond your wildest dreams. Anything you've ever wanted, it's in there! Now – do you believe me? Because I want to give it to you! That's right, I want you to have it, but only if you believe what I'm telling you! No, you can't see the key or the storage facility first; you just have to trust me! Because if you don't – well, I'm going to have to throw you in jail, where you'll be tortured horribly every day for the rest of your life. So, whaddaya say?"

2) The fear of death. Something that's plagued people all throughout history, from Neanderthals to moderns. We have a man in Jesus who claims to have the answer to this; a guarantee that we don't really die, that we'll be reunited with all those we loved in everlasting bliss – as long as we believe in him. What would we think of a scientist who claimed to have a cure for cancer – assuming we had very good cause to believe him – but refused to prove it, and refused to share it with anyone unless they swore a personal loyalty oath to him? Or, not only that, but what if he threatened to somehow give cancer to anyone who refused? Is that the ne plus ultra of morality? And what does it say that our sense of morality today is so far beyond the one expressed in the Bible? Doesn't that illuminate the provincial mindset of that day and age, limited by their place in history? Is that consistent with an omniscient deity?

They Fill You Up With the Devil's Cock and They Come in the Name of the Lord

Paul Bloom:

And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

A few random thoughts after reading the article:

I really, really hate the word "spiritual". I hate the metaphysical overtones. I hate the fact that it's usually one half of a shallow, stupid dichotomy, the other half being "organized religion". I know we're supposed to get the impression that a "spiritual" person is an independent-minded individual who doesn't let religious authority figures tell them how to think or behave. In my experience, it's just as likely, if not much more so, for self-identified "spiritual" people to be dilettantes who hold a lot of incoherent ideas, perhaps due to their tendency to treat the world's religious and philosophical traditions as a sort of Whitman's Sampler, accoutrements for accessorizing your inner lifestyle. Mix and match, create your own! I prefer the terms "reflective" or "contemplative" or "philosophical" if I need to indicate that I spend a lot of time looking at the bigger picture and pondering where and how I fit into it.

It's interesting to see how much the pro-religion argument, especially when advanced by people who aren't devout believers themselves, comes down to a Hobbesian claim that believing in inescapable cosmic justice prevents the majority of people from acting on their baser impulses. Misanthropic as I can be, I'm not so quick to assume that all my neighbors are just aching for a chance to rape, rob and pillage, and are only being held in check by the thought of a divine eye upon them and a fiery prison awaiting them. Not to mention the obvious fact, as alluded to above: do we really need to go through the ways in which believers from George W. Bush on down have committed utterly horrific crimes while managing to justify them through select scriptural readings? In a country that identifies itself as 80-90% Christian, it can't be atheists committing all the crimes. Somebody's got some 'splainin' to do.

But speaking of hell, let me just say this: I don't think anyone seriously believes in it. Try this thought experiment: imagine you were living in Germany in the 1930s, and somehow, you came across a list of people scheduled to be rounded up by the Gestapo the next day. You see a close friend or relative's name on there, so you speed to their house and rush in, frantically telling them to grab a few things and get the hell out of there, only to have them dismiss your claims with an incredulous laugh and go back to what they were doing.

How would you react? Would you just calmly shrug your shoulders and say something like, "All right, guess you'll find out soon, but don't come crying to me, because I warned you!" Or would you hit them over the head, if that's what it took, and drag them to safety, figuring that they would eventually thank you for it?

Yet when it comes to a place that is, by definition, infinitely worse than a Nazi concentration camp, we see people react with blithe indifference to the thought of their close friends and relatives, not to mention the vast bulk of humanity, ending up there. Anyone who honestly believed there was such a place would be an utter wreck from the emotional strain of imagining people, especially those they love, being tormented there with no chance of reprieve. But without a place like hell, what use is a savior? Who cares what Jesus said about anything if there's nothing to be saved from?

It amuses me to wonder if one of the most enduring institutions on earth could only exist as long as people refrain from spending five minutes thinking through such logical implications.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Distinction Without a Difference

Perusing my newest favorite blog, I came across an excerpted passage by one John Michell, harrumphing that his backwards-looking idealization of a time before socialism, secularism, materialism, et al. has absolutely nothing in common with fascism, nosiree, nuh-uh, no way:
But there is a world of difference between the gross literalism and inhumanity of a totalitarian system and the high idealism of a radical traditionalist.

Which reminded me of a brilliant passage by Steven Ozment in his book A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People:

The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.

Which I think speaks for itself.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Redemption Song and Dance

Thanks to an unexpected stay in a waiting room without a book of my own to pass the time, I recently became far more aware of the trials and tribulations of Britney Spears than I ever thought I would. (It was either the gossip mags or the Antlers, Ammo & Assholes With Guns shit, so...) I learned all about the drama during and immediately following her public derangement, about how a family's love vanquished drugs, depression, estrangement, and scheming manipulative boyfriends. Now little sis is busy churning out young 'uns, Mom's hawking a tell-all book, and Britney's back to performing; everybody loves and supports everybody else as they hold hands and walk towards the light, happily ever after, cue the syrupy strings, amen.

*sound of needle scratching record*

I do feel sorry for Britney the person. It's easy enough to ignore vapid celebrities, so I don't see any point in wasting energy hating them. Especially child stars, who probably haven't had much say in anything about their lives. If I could snap my fingers and give her a life far removed from all that, I'd be glad to.

When it comes to Britney the abstract spectacle, though, I have to say that I'm at least glad to see The Narrative
disrupted by this turn of events. You know, the teleological redemption narrative that has launched a thousand Lifetime channel movies and People magazine cover stories. Embrace the chaos, Britney! Think cyclical, not linear. As James Wolcott once brilliantly said regarding Oprah being snookered by James Frey:

[...] Oprah and her disciples have no problem with rough stuff as long as the sinner or victim find a rainbow of redemption at the end of the alley. They wanted to believe the worst in the book because it made for a steeper arc of ascension...

The whole concept of redemption seems fishy to me, another form of sentimentality. How many people do you know have found redemption? What does “redemption” really mean? It’s got a lofty religious sound, but the vast majority of people improve or worsen in varying degrees over time, and even those who radically turn their lives around or pull themselves out of the abyss still have to go on doing the mundane things we all do, often suffering relapses or channeling their sobriety and sadder-but-wiser maturity into passive-aggressive preening of their own moral goodness. Most change for better or worse is undramatic, incremental, seldom revealed in a blinding flash or expressed in a climactic moment of heroic resolve.

Encore Presentation

Looking for something else, I stumbled across this from earlier this year. I know the stories are several months old, but, you know, your puny cultural constructs such as "linear time" and "the news cycle" are as nothing to me, foolish mortal! Mwahaha!

Anyway, this
kind of shit is largely what motivated me to write this post to begin with.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Crucify the Insincere Tonight

Is there something wrong with these songs? Maybe there's something wrong with the audience!

- Against Me!

Still just a rat in a cage, eh, Billy?

I saw the Pumpkins in August and got treated to much of the same:
taking the stage an hour and twenty minutes late a la Axl Rose, two extended trippy jams (honestly, if you expect people to sit through twenty minutes straight of echo, delay, chirping birds and bubbling bongs, pass out some fucking LSD already), griping about middle-aged fans who are stuck in the past and only want to hear the old songs (from the guy who just covered a godawful Pink Floyd song), and only a couple songs from each of their earlier albums. Oh, but there was the, ah, unique encore: a cover of Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime", complete with kazoo solo - seriously. Billy's alternate lyrics: "In the summertime, when the weather is fine/ you can stretch right up/and shoot yourself in the can tell everyone to fuck off." The next day, I checked their website and saw that they were supposedly only doing a two-week warm-up tour, and had already announced that they were going to play the same setlist every night. Apparently it was such a success they decided to do it some more. (I remember rolling my eyes upon reading, several years ago, that Billy was taken with New Age pseudo-philosopher and fellow chrome-dome Ken Wilber - maybe some of that narcissism has rubbed off? Not that Corgan has ever been a shrinking violet...)

Of course, I'm all in favor of artists following their muse wherever it may take them, and Billy Corgan has already given me so many songs that I'll be listening to all of my life, so even if he decides to make a whole record of kazoo covers, I don't really have any right to complain about it. What does piss me off is the attitude that people who aren't down with your current aesthetic sensibilities are somehow fake or fair-weather fans, as if we're obligated to be equally enthused about subpar music.

I first became aware of them in late '91 thanks to a tiny blurb in the back pages of a guitar magazine, listing this "folk-rock" band as someone to watch out for in the future. I bought Gish and loved it immediately - as most of my friends were asking me if I had heard this new band called Nirvana, I would say yeah, but I really like this band called the Smashing Pumpkins. "Smashing Pumpkins?! What next, Ravishing Rutabagas?! Haw haw!" Two years later, they were blasting "Cherub Rock" along with all the other Lollapaloozers.

I found something to like on all their records. Of course I loved the My Bloody Valentine-derived wall of sound of Siamese Dream, and the Flood-produced stripped down sound on Mellon Collie. Even on Adore, I felt "To Sheila" and "Pug" were as beautiful as anything Corgan had ever written. Machina didn't really grab me, but there were still a few good songs, and the net-released follow-up, Machina part Deux, had another song, "In My Body", that I rank with any of their more famous songs. And the Aeroplane Flies High box set of b-sides and other unreleased material was an incredible grab bag of diverse songs. Everything from full-on aggro-metal to soft acoustic ballads to techno-oriented songs to just plain unique things that I can't compare to anything else; I've enjoyed all of it.

Zeitgeist, though, was just plain flat, uninspired and boring. Oh, the critics tried to warn me, but I figured, hey, it's the Pumpkins; there's got to be something on there I'll like. Nope. Even after several listens, I can hardly remember any of the songs. It's not that it's radically different than their past efforts, it's that it just sounds like leftovers that weren't good enough to make any of the last few records. It's insulting to be told that it's somehow my fault for not being able to appreciate that, as if I'm one of those baby boomer-types, listening to a radio station that only stops playing the same classic rock bands from the 60s and 70s long enough to play a "new" band who blatantly mines that exact same territory. I listen to a pretty eclectic range of music, so it's not that I'm threatened by change, Billy - it's just that, to quote the cultural critic Butt-head, "I don't like stuff that sucks."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Heavy Metal in Baghdad

The most gripping documentary I've watched in forever. I've already told all my friends about it, so I might as well tell the teeming multitudes of readers here, too.

The story is of Iraq's first and only heavy metal band and their attempts to stay alive, sane, together, and get the fuck out of there. There's only scattered footage of the band playing (they could only play ten shows in eight years due to the various impediments, from no electricity to fundamentalists threatening to kill people to rockets from Apache helicopters destroying their practice space and all their equipment).

It's just numbing to see what kind of hell they lived in, even if you have been reading about it for the last five years. Planes approaching the airport have to come in at 27,000 feet and do a corkscrew dive to the landing to avoid being shot down by insurgents. The two guys going there to film this have to be escorted everywhere by twelve armed guards for $1500 a day while wearing bulletproof vests, being told to expect sniper shootings when out driving, being told to stay away from windows. The vocalist and bassist are best friends since childhood and live fifteen minutes apart, but at the time of one visit by the crew, haven't seen each other for six months because walking down the street to the other's home would result in being shot or kidnapped on the street. Other offenses that would result in them meeting up with bullets at high velocity: wearing metal bands' t-shirts, wearing goatees instead of beards, growing long hair, being seen talking to visiting Westerners. One store that sold musical instruments closed down because of death threats from fundamentalists. The aforementioned rocket attack on the building where they practiced. Machine gunfire in the background while they talk to the camera outside an apartment complex. Six million people in a country of 26 million are either dead or in exile. Almost one fucking quarter. These kids have spent almost their entire lives dealing with the brute reality of American occupation and off-and-on bombing and sanctions while living under Saddam, only to see it get worse. And yet, they're still warm and friendly to these visiting journalists from Canada and NYC. Can you imagine your typical American being hospitable to a visiting foreigner from a country that had been attacking us for the last two decades while killing or scattering 75 million of us?

It's touching and somewhat surreal, then, to see this almost childlike, pure faith in music that gives them hope and strength in the midst of all this. I thought I lived for music, but even if I could have all my current collection and then some, I'd rather commit suicide than live through all that. They end up going to Turkey by way of Syria in hopes of finding a place where they can actually play shows and go to a recording studio, while dealing with the stress and anxiety of being homesick exiles at the mercy of bureaucrats. They can never go home again thanks to the international coverage their story attracts; they'd be shot on sight. They're incredibly upbeat throughout the film, but at one point, while they're trying for official UN refugee status in Istanbul, the drummer starts to feel despondent over the thought that they might come so far only to be split up and sent to different cities in Turkey, where none of them know the language and feel like retarded cavemen, as he puts it. He says, "Nobody wants us. Nobody will just let us be. Iraqis are like the plague of the world. Why don't you just fucking nuke us all and be done with it already?" Knowing that members of some of the American bands they idolize, like Metallica and Megadeth, have expressed a desire to do exactly that almost made me cry at that point.

And if it doesn't fill you with a burning desire to go string up every last member of the Bush administration from lampposts and use them as piñatas, you must not be human.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

2008 - A Space Cadet's Odyssey

"The thing's hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God! — It's full of bullshit!"

I speak, of course, of John Hinderaker's head.

Friday, November 07, 2008

I'd Rather Be a Writer Like These Three

Yes, I would.

If I only could.

I surely would.

The Thirteenth Labor

Where is Hercules when you need him? The Augean stables ain't got nothin' on this.

I agree - I'm kind of going to miss her. All the entertainment she provided in just over two

Saturday, November 01, 2008

An Intellectual Violence

This is why I say that they have retired the concept of hypocrisy. It goes far beyond double standards or duplicity or bad faith. There's an aggression to it, a boldness, that dares people to bring up the bald and obvious fact that the person making the charge is herself a far worse perpetrator of the thing she is decrying. There's an intellectual violence in it.

In a world in which the conservatives weren't such post modern shape shifters, we could come to a consensus on certain issues in this country --- like privacy, for instance. We could agree that it's wrong for government employees to use private information for partisan purposes --- or for the media, including bloggers, to stalk and publish private information of anyone who dares speak out for a political cause. But we don't live in a world like that.

We live in a world where the right wing ruthlessly and without mercy degrades and attacks by any means necessary what they perceive as the enemy, and then uses the great principles of democracy and fair play when the same is done to them. They leave the rest of us standing on the sidelines looking like fools for ever caring about anything but winning.

- Digby

It's something I've been concerned with for a long time now myself. I would go so far as to say that it's one of the most important issues of our age with regards to politics. Beyond all the minutiae and policy wonkishness, this theme is always there. What do you do, how do you proceed, when a very large percentage of people simply refuse to acknowledge a common reality? What does it mean when so many adults seem to reject the old truism about being entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts?

I'm certainly not a believer in what I think of as the "Golden Age" myth, where one imagines that things were better in some past Eden, whether the 1950s, pre-European-invasion America, or, if you're an Earth First! type, the Stone Age. Even as far back as the ancient Greeks - the cradle of Western civilization! - they were complaining about how far they'd fallen since the good old days, and can you believe these damn kids today, and on and on. Ancient Chinese, same thing. It seems clear that what people are attracted to about the past is the fact that, well, it's the past. We already know what happened. In the same way that a movie or book doesn't have the same emotional impact the second time around, it's easy to look back at a closed time period and imagine that the people living at the time had the benefit of your hindsight, that they were immune to the anxieties that accompany living in the moment.

And yet...I can't help but wonder if this phenomenon that Digby describes is, if not exactly new, at least a more brazen, or perhaps even more malignant form of an anti-intellectualism that has always been a part of our culture. The gleeful hatred of anything resembling cosmopolitanism or education beyond the three R's, the fascist-like obsession with repeatedly creating the world anew in one's own image through sheer force of will - has it always been there, and we're just lucky enough because of our system of mass media to be aware of every lunatic with something to tell us?

Being a huge fan of Nietzsche's writing, and being a pessimist by nature, I've always felt like I appreciated the importance of the irrational or deceptive aspects of human psychology more than most do. I don't believe in any sort of progressive teleology when it comes to human society, and I would think Nazi Germany proved for once and all that there's no reason why tendencies like this couldn't at least temporarily take over.

2005 was a very strange year for me. In my personal life, a thirteen-year relationship was disintegrating thanks to my partner's descent into a form of this same impulsive irrationalism, and when I'd go online to gain a temporary respite from that drama, I'd see the same thing on the macro level - right wing publishing houses like Regnery creating a whole series of books devoted to filtering the world through a lens of a sort of political Lamarckism. (If I had any writing talent, maybe there would be an interesting novel to be drawn from that experience.) In addition to that, though, I saw the other members of my family, who spent the Clinton years getting in touch with their inner Patrick Henry, turn into gung-ho apologists for Bush's authoritarian, mega-government police state with absolutely nothing to indicate a battle with their conscience, let alone a sense of embarrassment or shame for their hypocrisy. It all deeply affected me in ways I still haven't entirely come to grips with, hence my possible hypersensitivity to this topic.