Thoughts about the rise of Trump

Update post the Orlando massacre:

Delving into online political commentary during the current presidential election cycle feels as unsafe as being cast afloat on a small iceberg, a small iceberg that is slowly melting due to the heat one receives for having an opinion. For those that have dared criticize Donald Trump publicly, the backlash has been appalling. More on that below.

I will certainly not vote for Donald Trump, and, unless a miracle occurs this summer, I doubt that I will be voting for Bernie in November, although I am so grateful that he brought a lot of important issues to the fore during his campaign, issues that have to now be addressed. I did vote for him in the Oregon primary. Hillary, currently, leaves me stone cold. Thankfully Elizabeth Warren is a sparkling surrogate.

Yet, were Donald Trump to become president - and it could happen - I believe we would be staring down the barrel of a gun (a cliché I know, and yet it feels apt.) 

If people are puzzled over the rise of Donald Trump, a man who has never held office, who has no experience of running a state never mind a country comprised of states, (that lack of experience is, of course, a badge of honor these days,) they may be well served by reading Oriana Fallaci's 1979 essay and interview with Muammar el-Qaddafi, the self-styled and self-imposed late leader of Libya.

In Fallaci's essay, a run up to the actual interview, she shares remarkable insights regarding the rise of "revolutionaries," noting that it is usually the military grabbing power through the use of a coup d'etat. Non-revolutionaries in other words; real revolutionaries, she writes, have been few and far between. I am not suggesting that the Donald would ever be able to turn the USA's military might against its own people (although polling shows a large majority of our armed forces support him,) nor that he would even go there, yet I am certain that he is not a revolutionary. I became stirred and concerned after reading Fallaci's essay outlining what propels seemingly ordinary people to lead a so-called revolution; the trick to gaining power is to win the acquiescence of the people to aid in their power grabs, before turning on them.

As always, history provides us with the ability to look back, showing us how in the past, modernization and new technologies became very useful in reaching the populace of a state. When el_Qaddafi deposed King Idris in Libya in 1969, ninety-five percent of the population were illiterate - but they had access to televisions and transistor radios. As Fallaci points out: "In the past, adventurers who had set their sites on becoming dictators needed triumphal arches, newspapers, foolish or sellout intellectuals. Today, (she wrote this in 1979) all they need is some photographs, a cameraman, and a transistor." 

And so the people were, and still are, duped. We can thank our media for that.

Back to Fallaci on how a seemingly ordinary person grabs power. It goes like this:

"Heroes are few and far between, and heroes that stand against the powerful are even scarcer. The large majority (of the populace) are paralyzed by fear, shocked by the uncertainty of the future, and only want to know who they should love, respect and obey. They want a leader, basically, a king to replace the deposed king, a king who will fulfill their shameful and eternal need for a king."

She goes on: "...those who can't exist without a king and who cut off kingly heads only try to stick them back on again. Since it's impossible to reattach a head, they live in regret for what they have destroyed and they have no peace until a dead king is replaced with a live one, whoever it might be, whatever he might be called: Führer, Guardian of the Revolution, Caudillo, Imam, Supreme Leader, Mr. President, Monsieur Le President. The history of the world confirms this, and one of the oldest lies in the world is the lie of the republic.” 

Fallaci was one of our greatest interviewers and critics, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out; if only one prominent member of the media in the United States today was as brave as her we may be having a different conversation.

I mentioned above the backlash that people have received when publicly criticizing Donald Trump. Well, here's an eye-opening article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic: A Brief Introduction to Pro-Holocaust Twitter. "Donald Trump has expressed no interest in opening up death camps for Jews should he win the presidency, but his ardent supporters on the racist right have their hopes."

Meanwhile, Archie Brown, a political scientist, historian, and the Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford, warns us against worshipping the false god of the strong leader in this essay.

As I write, it appears that Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democrat nomination, and Bernie Sanders continues to fight on. The problem for Bernie that I see, (the issue of Super delegates aside, which I would argue needs to be addressed,) is that he simply didn't win enough votes. Here's Paul Krugman channeling Nate Silver on the outcome of the Democratic primaries recently:

"And no, saying that the race is effectively over isn’t somehow aiding a nefarious plot to shut it down by prematurely declaring victory. Nate Silver recently summed it up: “Clinton ‘strategy’ is to persuade more ‘people’ to ‘vote’ for her, hence producing a ‘majority’ of ‘delegates.’” You may think those people chose the wrong candidate, but choose her they did." Link.

The bottom-line is, that even though the choices for president may come across as unsavory, we must use our vote.

 

Emily Bell: How Facebook Swallowed Journalism

"This is the full text of a lecture delivered by Emily Bell last week at the University of Cambridge, where she is the Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media 2015–16 at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. It was first posted to Medium.

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming.

It is a great pleasure and honour to be in Cambridge this week as part of the Humanitas CRASSH visiting lecture programme. I must thank my former Observer colleague Professor John Naughton for proposing that I do this, and to the Humanitas committee for bringing me here. I would also like to thank St. John’s College, and in particular the Master, Chris Dobson, for their wonderful hospitality.

The first talk in this series has a rather apocalyptic title — ‘The End of News As We Know It: How Facebook Swallowed Journalism’. An American colleague at Columbia took one look at the promotional flier, complete with what appears to be a smoking cross, and said, ‘is it a religious talk?’, to which I could happily answer ‘no’. I guess I have committed an internet original sin by introducing the dreaded ‘reality gap’ headline, in that this is not intended as a Biblical warning or prophecy about the evils of Facebook or any other platform.

However, something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves. Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years, than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred. We are seeing huge leaps in technical capability — virtual reality, live video, artificially intelligent news bots, instant messaging and chat apps — and massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many.

Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks.

Should we be accepting of those risks? Do we adequately understand what they are? Are we working hard enough to interrogate new systems of power which have the scale to challenge governments, but are unaccountable except to the markets, and intentionally opaque.

What I want to talk about today is a small subsidiary activity of the main business of social platforms, but one of central interest to many of us. I want to examine how journalism is changed by the power of the Internet and specifically social networks.

Let’s start with a topical story which does in fact involve a Church."

The entire speech is here.

 

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, ORIANA FALLACI And Jorge Ramos

The art of the interview

I am under the somewhat weak impression that I have managed to collect every book written by Christopher Hitchens, yet it would not be unfair to say that I am delusional, because, when confronted with such a prodigious writer as Hitchens, who knows the true extent of his works. (Yes, I know, I should have researched his bibliography before sitting down to write this ...)

Still, I am currently engrossed in and yet…essays,’ a posthumous collection released by Simon & Schuster in November of 2015. Make of Hitchens what you will - a man who was unafraid of rattling many cages, a brilliant thinker who died far to soon - but can you imagine, that if he were alive today, how he would have approached the current presidential nomination fiasco? He was one of the few writers that I would have had complete faith in having the ability to tear apart all of the candidates with his coruscating and erudite polemics. As Michael Washburn of The Boston Globe said of Hitchens, "One reads him, despite his reputation as someone who wants to drink, argue, and tear the ornaments off the tree, because he is, first and last, a writer, an always exciting, often exacting, furious polemicist. This fact, the most salient thing about him, often gets neglected in the public jousting."

"The public jousting..." yes. And when I've watched videos of his talks and/or interviews, performance art is a term I would apply too. The world needed Hitchens, it shrank a little when he left us.  

Jorge Ramos, the host of ‘‘Noticiero Univision’’ and ‘‘Al Punto’’ on the Univision network, has a brief interview in the New York Times magazine today. I will return to this in a moment, but I want to point out that when he was asked who was his favorite interviewer, he picked five; his top pick was the brilliant inquisitor Oriana Fallaci.

That I read Ramos' brief interview is serendipitous, as it relates to the fact that I was reading, just last night, ‘Oriana Fallaci and the Art of the Interview,’  an essay in Hitchens’ book. It was originally published as a eulogy in Vanity Fair in 2006, the year of her death. Here’s a couple of extracts:

Here is an excerpt from an interview with what our media culture calls a "world leader":
Dan Rather: Mr. President, I hope you will take this question in the spirit in which it's asked. First of all, I regret that I do not speak Arabic. Do you speak any … any English at all?
Saddam Hussein (through translator): Have some coffee.
Rather: I have coffee.
Hussein (through translator): Americans like coffee.
Rather: That's true. And this American likes coffee.
And here is another interview with another "world leader":
Oriana Fallaci: When I try to talk about you, here in Tehran, people lock themselves in a fearful silence. They don't even dare pronounce your name, Majesty. Why is that?
The Shah: Out of an excess of respect, I suppose.
Fallaci: I'd like to ask you: if I were an Iranian instead of an Italian, and lived here and thought as I do and wrote as I do, I mean if I were to criticize you, would you throw me in jail?
The Shah: Probably.
[Edit]
 With Oriana Fallaci's demise at 77 from a host of cancers, in September, in her beloved Florence, there also died something of the art of the interview. Her absolutely heroic period was that of the 1970s, probably the last chance we had of staving off the complete triumph of celebrity culture. Throughout that decade, she scoured the globe, badgering the famous and the powerful and the self-important until they agreed to talk with her, and then reducing them to human scale. Facing Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, she bluntly asked him, "Do you know you are so unloved and unliked?" And she didn't spare figures who enjoyed more general approval, either. As a warm-up with Lech Walesa, she put Poland's leading anti-Communist at his ease by inquiring, "Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Stalin? I mean physically. Yes, same nose, same profile, same features, same mustache. And same height, I believe, same size."
Henry Kissinger, then at the apogee of his near-hypnotic control over the media, described his encounter with her as the most disastrous conversation he had ever had. It's easy to see why. This well-cushioned man who had always been the client of powerful patrons ascribed his success to the following:
"The main point arises from the fact that I've always acted alone. Americans like that immensely.
Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. Maybe even without a pistol, since he doesn't shoot. He acts, that's all, by being in the right place at the right time. In short, a Western.… This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style or, if you like, my technique."
Neither Kissinger nor "Americans" in general liked this passage when it appeared in all its full-blown absurdity in late 1972. In fact, Kissinger disliked it so much that he claimed to have been misquoted and distorted. (Always watch out, by the way, when a politician or star claims to have been "quoted out of context." A quotation is by definition an excerpt from context.) In this case, though, Oriana was able to produce the tape, a transcript of which she later reprinted in a book. And there it is for all to read, with Kissinger raving on and on about the uncanny similarities between himself and Henry Fonda.
The book is called Interview with History.

And so, back to Jorge Ramos.

In his short NY Times interview, he is, of course, asked about Trump and Cruz and their proclamations of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants should either of them win the presidency. (Let's not forget that Trump had Ramos physically removed from a news conference.) His response though, is very clear: "President Obama has deported more than two million undocumented immigrants in seven years, more than any other U.S. president. Trump is talking about deporting 11 million. Ted Cruz said he wants to deport 12 million. For us, immigration is not something abstract. It is personal. Very, very personal." 

It is worth noting, that weirdly, his interlocutor doesn't ask Ramos about his views re immigration or deportation of either Clinton or Sanders. The media obsession with Trump, Cruz and Rubio, for the moment remains intact.

For Ramos, and the millions of undocumented immigrants facing deportation, I can only imagine that, yes, it is very personal. And with Hitchens and Fallaci no longer among us, hopefully Ramos is the interrogator that picks up their torches; it could happen; should Ramos get in front of our next president he would surely ask the difficult questions that Hitchens and Fallaci never failed to ask. 

Fallaci's power was, that like Hitchens, she considered herself a writer rather than a journalist. And, as a writer, she explained, "as you know, I never give interviews." Perhaps Ramos should hold off doing interviews too...

Karl Ove Knausgaard on America, Canada, Vikings, obesity and tipping

There is something brilliant about recruiting Karl Ove Knausgaard to write a two-part essay in the New York Times Magazine on traveling through America. In Knausgaard we have an author widely praised as Proustian in style; an author who embarked on writing a six volume semi-autobiographical book titled My Struggle; an author who has an über-focused, uncanny and unswerving sense of his surroundings. He also presents, in somewhat flat prose, just the facts - his observations. He is socially awkward and very reserved. He prefers to be alone or with only the company of his children. It appears, as far as I can tell, that his prior American visits were spent only in New York City. This latest visit, one that he is documenting, is his first foray into the American hinterland as it were. A Norwegian abroad in America; not your average Norwegian either, nor your average tourist. I can't wait to read the NYT Letters to the Editor column in the coming weeks.

Many Americans tend to believe in the idea of the country's exceptionalism, a deep belief that renders other countries as merely lesser entities; Europe is especially disparaged as 'socialist' because most European countries provide single-payer healthcare, along with reasonably priced higher education, for instance. What then would they make of Norway, one of the most truly socialist countries in the European bloc? What would they ever make of the Norse - the Danes, the Swedes and the Norwegians as a whole - if they were to ever meet any of them on their own soil? The Norse, a proud and stoic people living in the far north of the planet, who endure almost six months a year of darkness and bitterly cold temperatures, who's temperament is far removed from that of the average American. Knausgaard finds himself confused; not initially when he lands in Newfoundland, Canada, visiting the place where the Vikings had landed and settled a thousand years ago - in fact he is in thrall at being able to witness the very place that his Nordic ancestors landed, after crossing from Greenland, in what to them was the New World: Newfoundland. His confusion began when he went out for dinner later that evening.

The previous evening, I ate dinner at Jungle Jim’s restaurant. Everyone had looked up at me when I entered, a sort of ripple traveling through the room, heads lifting, necks turning, only to subside as I sat down at one of the tables. The walls were clad in bamboo, there were a few plastic palms strewn about and some of the dishes had jungle-related names. The contrast to the dark and empty town outside, the freezing cold air, which made it painful to breathe, the snow and the vast sky full of stars, couldn’t have been bigger. Several TVs were on with the sound muted, showing a hockey game between Sweden and Russia, a semifinal for the World Junior Championship. Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them. I had never seen people that fat before. The strange thing was that none of them looked as if they were trying to hide their enormous girth; quite the opposite, several people were wearing tight T-shirts with their big bellies sticking out proudly.

I couldn’t quite figure out a lot of the dishes, all those chicken wings and barbecue. I didn’t know what went with what, and was none the wiser after checking out what other people were eating, because they seemed to be having myriad dishes, served in baskets; some tables were entirely covered with them, some even stacked on top of one another. So I picked a spaghetti dish — that I could relate to. It consisted mainly of cheese, and tasted like something I could have cooked myself, back when I was still a student and would mix myself something out of whatever was in the fridge.

This evening, I ate at a place called Pizza Delight. It was located in the Viking Mall, and I was the only guest. The waitress, a girl of maybe 18, seemed permanently amazed at everything I said and did. I ordered a pizza; she asked me several times whether that was all I was having. Yes, I said. When it was brought to my table and I started to eat, she stood behind the counter, glancing at me surreptitiously. I knew I was doing something wrong, but I had no idea what.

[Edit]

I knew nothing about the U.S., much less Canada. And my only observation thus far was that people here were fatter than back home. What was that if not the cliché about America?

As I returned the book to my backpack and went to look for the waitress, who had been out of sight for a while, I was furious and in despair. And now, on top of everything, there was the business of tipping. I hated leaving tips, not because I was stingy, to the contrary, but because I never knew how much to give or how to do it if I paid by credit card and the card terminal didn’t have a tipping function. Worst of all, however, were the times when someone carried my luggage to my room. I could never bring myself to give them money, the situation was too embarrassing, I felt that stuffing some cash into their hands would just humiliate them.

This time I had a $10 bill in my pocket, which I put on the counter after I paid, sort of casually and by-the-way, full of shame, because I was treating her as a servant.

Reading Knausgaard's essay of his time in America is like witnessing the collision of continents: Those piles of food baskets, no doubt plastic, are a perfect allegory that points to indulgence and over-consumption on a grand scale; the enormous girths; the waitress asking Knausgaard if one pizza was all he was having; his otherness in the eyes of that waitress; the shame he felt when tipping. We see Knausgaard, in all of this telling, colliding head-on with North American mores.

It would be imbecilic of me to suggest that there are no obese people in Norway, Denmark or Sweden, there must be. It is just that it is not the norm throughout Europe in general. Does obesity make America exceptional? Knausgaard felt that it was a cliché even when considering it. Having experienced American eating habits he may feel it is no longer a cliché as far as he's concerned.

I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, yet have been in Norway only once, when my band Gang of Four performed in Bergen in 2006. I recall eating well at the Bergen home of my friend Arve Overland's parents. It was a gathering of family. The food was healthy and plentiful, medium-sized portions; the food served was not the centre of attention; conversation was the key that brought warmth and goodwill to the occasion.; the food was a tasty compliment. I didn't feel like I was just a guest so much as I was part of an extended family.

In Jungle Jim's and Pizza Delight, Knausgaard must have felt unmoored, lonely and deflated.

Navigating 2013

Miles Davis: “I’ll play first, and I might tell you about it later. Maybe.”

Another year
2013 began with a loose idea that I managed to actually build upon, one that settled in by the end of the first quarter and cemented itself by the end of the year. I chose focus over multi-tasking. When writing I embraced mindfulness over rapid-fire typing. I took long pauses before answering interview questions; asking journalists to provide interview questions in email is a strategy that I recommend. It gives you time to mull and research, to find a way to not answer a question directly but to tease it out and find the real question hidden amongst the rhetorical weeds. I closed my Facebook account. I looked at the world outside my personal bubble. I read more older novels. I didn’t attend SXSWi.

A class I taught – Interface & Design – in the Bachelor of Arts program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art had me considering small screens, tiny screens, television remote controls, car dashboards, why we could never program the clock on a VCR, or in a car for that matter. Frank Chimero reminded me that language is an interface too. (The Miles Davis quote above comes from Frank’s wonderful book The Shape of Design.) And language is a very important personal extension of ourselves that can get overlooked in a ‘digital age.’ As John N Gray wrote: “in evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side effect of language. Today it is a by product of media.”

I am sharing all of this because when I took a look at my 2012 end-of-year essay I notice now that it is a collection of “digital” ephemera; URLs used as substitution for thoughtful description. There’s lament where there ought to be celebration for a year well spent. I can see now that I was also subconsciously suggesting our pocket devices throw shadows onto our celebrations. They have come between us is the subliminal message at the heart of that year-end wrap up.

Perhaps that’s why I chose mindfulness as a goal for 2013. I ended 2012 with a challenge to myself closing the essay with … to put my money where my mouth is, as they say, I’m looking forward to being more mindful, sifting through the clutter and improving my grammar. After all, Caesar non supra grammaticos. [tr.] My grammar may not have improved but I stuck to my goal.

Writing
“The kind of writing I like tends to resemble nothing that ever happened on earth before, and that work is very difficult to talk about in workshop settings, because we can’t subject it to the same tired bits of advice (Change it to the third person! Start here! Maybe you need the present tense!), that we have so overused before.” From an interview with Rick Moody.

The year in letters began when I wrote this essay in January; an essay about a book about a film about a journey to a room. The book is Zona by Geoff Dyer. I’m going to fall into hyperbole here, but that book changed my life, and I’m not referring solely to the book’s content; reading Dyer and dissecting his method and prose taught me how to improve my writing. (Hint: Tight sentences. Drop the ands and buts.) Should I meet him I will thank him for that. With Dyer in mind I went on to write an article for the Oregon Humanities where I considered the opportunities and ethics of internet music streaming. That essay was the beginning of a new way of considering the endless to and fro of the ‘musicians versus the internet’ debate for me.

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The failure of political leadership: Inequality in America

What would Walt Whitman have written?

One person at a time, millions of American’s decided in 1861 – as their grandparents had in 1776 – that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country. – Adam Goodheart from 1861: The Civil War Awakening

I feel unease in the air. A palpable sense of society fracturing, the pace quickening. It is clearly obvious to anyone paying attention that America is now a country without leaders or leadership. We might point fingers at the Right or the Left yet we are all complicit: we have a vote. We can certainly point to the news media and the “he said/she said” style of contemporary “journalism” that’s taken hold, as seen in the lack of reporters challenging the blatant obfuscations espoused by right-wing politicians who wish to block any attempt by the Obama administration’s efforts to invest in the economy; the blatant refusal of the Republican Congress to act is the natural extension of Representative Joe Wilson’s lack of decorum when he yelled “You lie!’ at president Obama during a joint session of Congress in 2009. The outburst got much attention. The fact that Wilson was wrong and Obama was not “lying” received hardly any attention.

Media reflects and shapes society. As my friend the writer and cultural critic Roy Christopher pointed out two years ago: “When it comes to an information diet, our news is largely a headline-driven enterprise.”

The current majority in Congress does not reflect American society. The makeup of the American electorate is changing at a rapid pace and one has only to look at the makeup of the House and Senate – mostly male, white, older – to see the imbalance of representation. And those non-representative leaders in power are angry. Beware, any Republican members of the House who dared show bipartisanship in 2013 and who may be up for election soon, as they will find themselves facing an army of right wingers heavily financed by shady organizations such as Americans For Prosperity and Freedomworks. In the 2014 mid-term elections, the billionaire Koch brothers, who fueled and helped finance the Tea Party, are determined to unseat any incumbents who don’t toe the line. Centrist Republicans barely exist these days.

The freshman Tea Party class of 2010 and their supporters in the House, are clearly not concerning themselves with leadership or worrying about where America is heading; they care only about their own constituency. I don’t mean constituency as in the first instance of its definition: a body of citizens entitled to elect a representative. No, I mean as in: the people involved in or served by an organization (as a business or institution). It’s complicated: as corporations are now defined as people too, with the rise of the Super-PACs they can pour money into the campaigns of their favored candidates and buy their attention with ease, often anonymously. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that they own the Republican Party, although recently the party has begun to push back against the Tea Party wing and Speaker John Boehner recently spoke out against groups that try to defeat GOP incumbents they consider too willing to compromise with Democrats. Yet Speaker Boehner has said that he is dead set against raising taxes on the rich to help pay for much needed revenue that would help lift the American economy out of the doldrums.

All of the above is a quick overview of what Ezra Klein has called the worst Congress ever.

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Humanism creates a false belief that we can explain everything

On Philip Roth, John N. Gray, George Orwell, Sigmund Freud, Samuel Beckett, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Barbara Ehrenreich, Fernando Passoa, Donald Rumsfeld and Errol Morris. The human animal and arguments against humanism.

This is my attempt to weave together a lot of thoughts that were inspired by reading a whole host of books over the past two months; books that had a recurring theme or could be cross-patched together whether through theory, serendipity or symbolism. I'm not certain that I've been successful, yet my failure may be your success - or vice versa.

I've been fascinated with how we live our lives

Let me begin with this insight from John N. Gray in his book The Silence of Animals. "In the most general terms, humanism is the idea that the human animal is the site of some kind of unique value in the world."

Here's O'Brien belligerently informing Winston in George Orwell's 1984:  "You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you. You will be lifted clean out of the stream of history. We shall turn you into gas and pour you into the stratosphere. Nothing will remain of you: not your name in a register, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated in the past as well as the future. You will never have existed."

And this by Steven Millhauser from Phantoms, a short story in The Best of McSweeney's.  

"Explanation # 3: One explanation asserts that we and the phantoms were once a single race, which at some point in the remote history of our town divided into two societies. According to a psychological offshoot of this explanation, the phantoms are unwanted or unacknowledged portions of ourselves, which we try to evade but continually encounter; they make us uneasy because we know them; they are ourselves." 

And to wrap a proverbial bow around things: "Humankind can't bear very much reality." - T.S. Eliot in Burnt Norton.

Fernando Pessoa

Some words from from Fernando Pessoa as Bernardo Soares:

"If I carefully consider the life a man leads, I find nothing to distinguish it from the life an animal leads. Both man and animal are hurled unconsciously through things and the world; both have interludes of amusement; both daily follow the same organic itinerary; both think nothing beyond what they think, nor live beyond what they live. A cat wallows in the sun and goes to sleep. Man wallows in life, with all its complexities, and goes to sleep. Neither one escapes the fatal flaw of being who or what it is."

Bernardo Soares is but one nom de plume used by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. In Gray's view he says of Soares/Pessoa: "Some truths cannot be told except as fiction."

Gray, in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts On Humans And Other Animals writes: "Mystics talk of finding sermons in stone. For seekers after inhuman truth there could be no worse nightmare. It is only because nature cares nothing for us that it can release us from human cares."

Here, Fernando Pessoa considers our relationship to nature:

Only if you don't know what flowers, stones, and

rivers are

Can you talk about their feelings.

To talk about the flowers, stones, and rivers,

Is to talk about yourself, about your delusions.

Thank God stones are just stones,

And rivers just rivers,

And flowers just flowers.

Gray says: "Anyone who truly wants to escape human solipsism should not seek out empty places. Instead of fleeing to the desert, where they will be thrown back into their own thoughts, they will do better to seek the company of other animals. A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery."

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Cognitive dissonance is the normal human condition

"We all have opinions, where do they come from?"

— Gang of Four: Why Theory?

This weekend I was spending time with one of my favorite albums - Push The Sky Away by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. I would describe Cave as a lyrical author rather than just a lyricist; his songs are narratives, poems and short stories; often the characters in his stories are street-hardened naifs living lives that skirt between fantasy and reality. At their best, on this album and others, his songs could be the soundtrack to that dark, brooding novel by Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian.

Cave's awareness of his music as art shows up as a subtle third person reference in Finishing Jubilee Street where he speaks/sings "I'd just finished writing Jubilee Street, I laid down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep." Bertolt Brecht would have been proud.

That preamble is a set up for where I'm going here. I just finished The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths a fascinating non-fiction book by John N. Gray. A synopsis I would apply to the book is that humans have always struggled with the idea of progress and often don't realize their response to progress is laced with illusions and myths. (Dear Nick, a freebie - there are many ideas for songs here should you need them...) I'll return to the book's insights later in this post.

In response to musician's plaints against the way people access their music these days, I've often said that I don't believe in the nostalgic idea that there was once a Golden Age of music; a period where the music recording industry was overflowing with cash, so much cash that it showered it evenly to all musicians, proving its largesse whilst creating an egalitarian income stream that treated everyone the same. I'd argue that the business has been pretty steady for decades except for a bell curve in the eighties and nineties when music fans bought CDs to replace their vinyl collections and concert ticket prices went through the roof. If I look to the left and to the right of that bell curve I'd say that the recorded music industry has regained a kind of equilibrium.

A question that might be put to me: Are you suggesting that the Internet didn't flatten the recorded music industry? I would reply: Not entirely flattened it, but it didn't adapt well to it. I would also reply that the Internet certainly flattened many, many businesses - Kodak comes to mind - and the businesses that adapted to the opportunities that the Internet brought - Oakstreet Bootmakers for example - came out on top. The correct question might be this: Do you agree that the Internet disrupted not only business, but culture and society too? And I would reply: Now that's something that we agree on.

 

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How musicians benefit by being artisans

Metaphors

…all of this was difficult, amazing, perplexing, astonishing—but so was the laying of the railroads and the sending of telegraph signals across the ocean. [Edit] From the first, and in no small part because of its fervent supporters, it has felt less like a technology and more like a social movement—like communism, like feminism, like rock and roll. Internet as Social Movement n+1 magazine.

I have just finished reading a book by John Williams called Butcher’s Crossing. It’s a western. In her introduction Michelle Latiolais writes: “I think it’s worth mentioning that Williams was writing Butcher’s Crossing as his country advised and aided Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam, and that Butcher’s Crossing was published as the first American troops landed on Vietnamese soil.” The book is about change. It is deeply foreboding. Williams couldn’t have known when he was writing his novel what was about to happen in Vietnam, yet when read metaphorically the book is eerily prescient.

At the heart of the novel is a hunt. The men who make up a team in search of buffalo and their valuable hides are skilled hunters, skinners, oxen drovers and riflemen. They know no other work. The repeater rifle, a fairly recent invention to them, makes it easy to kill the buffalo. The skinner prepares the still attached hide with the methodical use of knives. A rope is knotted to the hide and looped to a horse saddle. The horse is driven forward removing the hide in one fell swoop. The oxen drover leads his charges back to camp with each load. After being trapped in a valley for six months, snowed in, they return to find that they are no longer the same hunters who had left almost a year ago. They are drastically changed men. Beyond the pages of the book, to men of their ilk, another technological invention would soon affect the way of the hunter, the skinner and the oxen drover.

It was the locomotive; a new technological marvel.

In 1828 Charles Carroll broke ground for the first railroad line in America. The line was built in competition to a proposed new canal, ‘a canal that would bypass Baltimore’s thriving harbor and potentially hurl the city into an economic abyss.’ Instead the new railroads would ‘relegate the canals to the dustbin of commercial history.’ [Reference.] That is a historical example of a new technology challenging the old. Transportation in America changed forever and yet as we know, canals didn’t disappear and the waterborne shipping industry still thrives.

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Tarkovsky, music and possible-zones

By Dave Allen. January 2013

Dyer: And what about you? Do you feel that the style you’ve arrived at is some sort of compensatory thing? Did you start out to be a straight-down-the-line novelist?

Sullivan: No, I never did. And I really relate to what you said about helplessness. Because you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests, even when they don’t go the way you’d want them to, out of a kind of politeness. I’m often sheepish about forcing my obsessions on the reader, but I know that when I indulge that, I write better. So what became the guiding thing in my work is that I kept indulging that.

Dyer: That’s something we have in common. Too often, self-indulgence is used in the pejorative sense.

From a conversation with John Jeremiah Sullivan and Geoff Dyer.

I sat down in my home office on the last day of 2012 and began to write. I actually had no idea what I would write. I described some ideas in my 2012 year-end post about being more focused in this coming year, wanting to do less, achieve more, so I figured that I should hold to that and start with the first item that appears on my list of possible subjects – my thoughts about a brilliant book: Zona by Geoff Dyer.

Why this book and the reason it aligns with this essay’s title will be revealed. But first, the extract from a conversation between Dyer and Sullivan above has them dwelling on self-indulgence, where both agree that it’s a good thing. I too agree; as Sullivan remarks, “you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests.”

So what are my interests? Well the list would be long, as I’m sure Dyer and Sullivan’s would be too. Perhaps there’s a subtext to Sullivan’s quote: first focus on your interests, then indulge in them. So – music, reading, writing, philosophy, politics, and the Internet’s disruption of culture and business, are all high on my shortlist of interests. Regular readers of my essays here are no doubt attuned to those self-indulgent topics of mine. (And by attuned I accept that you might find my opinions boring or downright disagree with them, but then that’s what makes the world turn.)

Dyer’s book and his conversation with Sullivan became the inspiration for this essay, one that could have had a subtitle – my problem with contemporary popular music. Problem might be too strong of a word. I notice that I am becoming more self-aware especially in trying to make sense of who I am now and how, as I age, my relationship to music changes (actually, it would be more honest to say how my relationship with culture in general is changing.) Music that I have enjoyed in the past remains, obviously, just as it was recorded – often mellifluous tunes captured in vinyl like arthropods mummified in amber. Unlike those encased insects the songs can still take flight. Dyer and Sullivan have both made music a subject of some of their best work: Dyer – But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz and Sullivan in his book Pulphead: Essays.

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Thoughts on the Commons

By Dave Allen September 1 2013

David Bollier on Ivan Illich and the contemporary Commons Movement

The attraction of the commons, then, may be that it promises the emergence of a non-cynical form of post-modern politics – Dougald Hine

Recently I came across this: The Quiet Realization of Ivan Illich’s Ideas in the Contemporary Commons Movement by David Bollier, a speech he gave at a conference, “After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich today,” in Oakland, California, at the Oakland School for the Arts. It seems like it was a fascinating few days, and I’m writing about this here because the whole idea of the commons is critical to mankind in many ways, and is critical to creators of all stripes that they understand all of its implications.

From David Bollier:

For the past three days I’ve been attending a fantastic conference, “After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich today,” in Oakland, California, at the Oakland School for the Arts. Illich was an iconoclastic social critic, Jesuit priest, radical Christian, historian, scientist and public intellectual who was especially famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his searing critiques of the oppressive nature of institutions and service professions. His writings also explored the nature of the nonmarket economy, or “vernacular domains,” as he put it, which are the source of so much of our humanity and, indeed, the source of commoning.

We have not had a social critic of Illich’s originality and caliber in some time. He was classically trained yet traversed disciplinary boundaries with ease and rigor. He was disdainful of conventional political categories and ideology because his critique came from a much deeper place, beyond left or right. He was passionate, humanistic and contemptuous of the harms caused by modernity and economics to the life of the spirit, especially as seen from within the Catholic tradition.

My experience with the idea of the commons has been limited, and if I’m honest I can point to only three instances – Gooseholme Park in my hometown of Kendal in England, and referred to locally when I was growing up there, as a commons, or public space. Another instance is the Creative Commons, an organization that offers free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use one’s creative work. And of course there is Lewis Hyde’s masterpiece: Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, where Hyde references Silence Is A Commons, an essay by Ivan Illich, where Illich tells of …being taken as a baby to the island of Brac on the Dalmation coast to receive his grandfather’s blessing. This was a place where daily life had altered little for five hundred years: “The very same olive-wood rafters still supported the roof of my grandfather’s house. Water was gathered from the same stone slabs on the roof. The wine was pressed in the same vats, the fish caught from the same boats.

All of that was about to change. “On the same boat on which I arrived in 1926, the first loudspeaker was landed on the island… Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete.”

It’s worth noting that Illich’s essay had a subtitle; Computers are doing to communication what fences did to pastures and cars did to streets. Once again, I’ll leave that for another post.

And so, you might say, I’ve had a bit of a history with the commons, and also as a copyright holder myself I have an interest in the commons. And just because I am a copyright holder, I must say that I am not interested in the narrow debates of cultural and creative ownership in the age of the Internet. As Hyde rightly points out in his book, not all creative work is “intellectual property.” Hyde took solace in the fact that some of America’s founding fathers – John Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – who held that knowledge was assumed to be a commonwealth, not a private preserve. And he includes an argument from Heraclitus to open the book’s first page:

The Argument: Even as market triumphalists work
to extend the range of private property
a movement has arisen to protect
the many things best held in common

Most people act as if they had a private understanding
but in fact the Logos is common to all

Something to ponder.