Saturday, December 28, 2013

Making sense of '80s era Bob Dylan, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

 It wasn't a particularly good decade, although it started out with some potential. "Infidels" featured more substantial writing than "Shot of Love', which, while decent and somewhat catchy, is mostly notable for not being as Christian as "Saved". 

After "Infidels", though, it goes downhill fast with the virtually unlistenable, "Empire Burlesque", followed by the still bad "Knocked out loaded", these two being Dylan taking on '80s mainstream  rock in a horrible, horrible, way.

Things look up a little bit in "Down in the Groove", which is actually well done, even if the lyrics aren't up to par usually. The drum machines and synths of "Empire Burlesque" and "Knocked Out Loaded" are no longer there.

The albums improve quite a bit with "Oh, Mercy!", which can tentatively be called one of his best, which introduced new writing, good lyrics, and a new sound that would form the basis for the more positive departures that Dylan would go down in the late '90s and 2000's.

But first, before that, there came "Under the Red Sky", whose badness is so epic that it deserves a category all its own. If looked at as "Outsider Art", i.e. by the mentally ill, "Wiggle wiggle" and the title song could get more appreciation.

Dylan, though, got back on it with two albums of covers of old, old, folk songs, first with "Good as I've been to you", then with the, in my opinion, better done and more worthwhile "World Gone Wrong". These two albums anchored Dylan back in the folk country tradition.

Combined with the vibe from "Oh, Mercy", set the stage first for the Grammy Winning "Time Out of Mind", and then " 'Love and Theft' ", the two classic albums that reestablished him as a relevant artist who was still doing interesting things.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The future of the Left in the United States in the Obama era

Cracks have appeared in the once stable bedrock of the left media in the U.S. in the post-Bush era. Salon.com, Rawstory, and others, are turning into outlets that repeat ideology without looking at the reality. For instance, the story run on Salon.com asserting that the whole denomination of the Southern Baptists was full of racists and homophobes, the very questionable "year in cultural appropriation" on Salon, that actually had little to do with cultural appropriation outside of someone's deluded head.  The hit squad put out on Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who, in categorizing how the Tea Party viewed people, asserted that now mayor of New York Bill de Blasio's family, which is interracial, where his wife used to identify as being a Lesbian, was disgusting and not normal---he was slamming the Tea Party, not defending them, is another example.

The problem isn't the basic values themselves. Neither racism, homophobia, nor the blatant presentation of someone else's culture as your own are trivial issues. However, we've gotten so used to having the enemy be a Bush administration post-9/11 that presented an unambiguous united front that we've gotten lazy about how we think and what we oppose.

The nuance of the world that we live in makes the broad brushes that we've painted the world in no longer sufficient. So what is to be done?

My opinion is that what we need now is a synthesis of Right and Left, not the Tea Party right but instead the more principled, moderate, philosophical, conservative current, along with a solid left foundation, with a leavening of liberalism.

Right and Left fusion, I believe, can address many of the ambiguities and nuances that are being totally overlooked by the more mainstream Left wing media, and point a way towards a political doctrine and future that's less one dimensional and is better all around.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Our immigration exploitation scheme

One thing that upsets me about the U.S. is how we justify having a several tiered economy based on immigration status with hopes of a better future. I mean, sure, it's great, but it doesn't change the fact that having people who are immigrants occupying the bottom jobs makes it that much easier for people who are native born to occupy the higher ones. Immigration doesn't take jobs away from people--quite the opposite, it allows people who are native born to get better ones.

It's really convenient...get people who come from poor places to work here for less than native born people would be willing to work for, give them less respect than native born people would demand,  with the hope of a higher standard of living for them and potentially a much higher standard of living for their descendants. 

All of this 'no first amendment right' to be on television for the Duck Dynasty guy is rank hypocrisy

Because you know that if he was saying things that were progressive and was fired for them folks would be saying exactly the opposite.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reagan, the Reagan Revolution, and Obama

Although I can't say I approve of it, I think that I now understand more of where the 'Reagan Revolution' was coming from, and how what Obama is doing avoids some of the pitfalls that lead to it. Specifically, although they may at times have called what they were opposing socialism, what in fact the Reagan Revolution was confronting wasn't socialism itself but a liberal welfare state. There's a difference, although there can be a socialist welfare state as well. There were a large number of government programs that addressed lots of issues without any sort of means testing to see whether they were effective or not, and that dodged the issue of class entirely. Why they did that is integral to their failure.

The post-war United States saw one of the biggest economic booms in all of history. Europe was destroyed, so was Japan, and the Soviet Union was closed off to outside economies, so we had world trade and development all to ourselves. Many people thought that what was in fact only a temporary situation was permanent, and that soon it would extend not just to the United States but to the rest of the world as well. Because of this, class was thought to no longer be an issue, and with that the difference between a socialist state and a liberal state became unimportant as well. But there, in fact, are important differences regarding how society itself functions, differences that would be important in good times as well as bad, most importantly the continued existence of a class system as well as the concentration of economic power in few hands. That people were in general prosperous only obscured what still existed below the surface.

So, without addressing the fundamental contradictions of society, the liberal welfare state just made more programs that touched the surface of things without looking at their root causes. This lead to lots of inefficiencies and a large bureaucracy, and in the later Carter years when the economy tanked, the shit hit the fan, so to speak. With the Golden Age over, all of those social programs had quite a hard time justifying themselves, especially with class asserting itself as an issue for a group that had been given short shrift in the social program arena: white working class males. The thing is that whatever guilt or responsibility white folks had and have, once the recession hit they were suffering just like anyone else, and ignoring that did not make people happy.

The regulatory legislation that was brought in at the same time as the social programs must have looked like bureaucratic do-gooder-ness, even though in many cases it did great things...like the very existence of the EPA, for example. But perhaps taking over from resentment against the social programs the idea of grass roots citizen action in starting businesses in opposition to government bureaucracy gained traction.

However, the small business vs. big government paradigm that was established, that's been flailed about ever since, is based on a false opposition. Either a large top level set of programs that sits on top of society directing it or virtuous small business people. Socialism itself provides another option, or social democracy at least. Fundamental to socialism, if implicit in it, is the idea of society as a common wealth that everyone participates in, and to the role of government as making that commonwealth more participatory and equal through effecting structural change that once in place simply has to be maintained. The idea of endless social programs that don't solve problems is not what folks who are socialists should be aiming for--instead, what should be the case is action taken at the root causes that solves them so that less social programs in general will be needed.

Although business in its higher realms is of course effected by socialism, social democratic and otherwise, there's nothing stopping small businesspeople from getting started and taking initiative. Instead, what's recognized is that on the whole it's the larger accumulations of economic power in corporations and industries that makes the difference for society, and if you really want to effect change you'll have to alter the way they do business, how they function.

Despite claims to the contrary, I really do believe that Obama is moving us closer to a social democracy, and that this is a very good thing. If we continue to look at the root causes and try to find public solutions to them, for example with health care, we'll recognize soon enough that addressing structural problems in society does not mean turning society into a dictatorship. Instead, socialism, or most socialism, has always advocated changing the structure of society so that people can get on with living their lives.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How the Enlightenment turned out the lights on learning.

I think that the Enlightenment, at least in the U.S., has, far from helping us, in fact hindered us in many ways. Now, the Enlightenment itself, taken on the whole, isn't the problem. Instead, it's a particular subset of it that has gotten the upper hand in society. And this isn't necessarily the radical enlightenment either. No, it's the orientation in the "Battle of the Books", as Jonathan Swift called it, towards jettisoning the past and all of the previous accumulations of learning for a quick fix explanation of humanity and human society.

What the Enlightenment has unfortunately bequeathed to us is the idea that if you have a formalistic understanding of human nature and human society, say as being made of atomic individuals who behave in ways that their biology tells them, you don't need to put much effort into thinking about the meaning of it all. Updated to the present, we have science, biology, psychology, and a notion of individuals as being autonomous to one degree or another, and all of that presents a scaffolding for the interpretation of life that allows people to shut off their critical thinking skills and go on auto pilot.

Jonathan Swift's battle of the books, between classics and moderns, was between people who were part of the Enlightenment who believed that in order to understand society and humanity in general, you had to draw on lots of sources from the past and carefully develop a perspective and understanding, and those who thought that you could just read a few books of modern philosophy that explained it all and not have to think about it further. Swift, being a partisan for the classic, derided the moderns as being immature adolescents who were glomming onto the next best thing.

We might not have that same zeitgeist of explanation these days, but the consequences of it are there: instead of considering society or questions about humanity ourselves, we let science take care of it, or socio-biology, and wait for the latest bit of news about a study about our supposed behavior as shaped by evolution to explain life for us. And besides, what matters is the market, right? Someone else can think about those things because they don't get you very far in life.

We just assume we know what's out there, and that assumption of certainty leads to laziness and consequent superficiality, as we disengage from thinking about the world and look to whatever transitory things are in front of us. And the state of society follows, at least in the United States, where we get on a path to reducing society to the least common denominator, culturally speaking.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Stuff vs Understanding

One of the very interesting things that is met with in the biographies of the pioneers of psycho-analysis is the extensive philosophical background that they had. Strictly speaking, that was not necessary. Freud, Reich, Jung, were trained as medical doctors. A knowledge of Kant isn't required to treat people, but the educational authorities at the time felt that it, along with familiarity with other thinkers and concepts, was something that any well educated person should possess. The knowledge, the study of that knowledge, would produce an understanding that transcended the base aspects of the profession, and would be by definition good.

How different are we today, where when people are presented with philosophy, or sociology, or anthropology, as courses of study the first question is often "What good will that do me?", meaning "How will that help me make money?". Implicit is the idea that money and what money can buy are substitutes for understanding.

With a lot of money you can buy a lot of things, use them, have them around you, possess them, consume them. They surely depended on skill to manufacture, but you did not manufacture them. They stand outside, always outside, of the person, alienated from them. Even if you eat something, it's gone in a second.  Understanding, on the other hand, is possessed intimately. What you know, what you understand about the world, about society, about your fellow human beings, is part of you. It does not stand outside, always inaccessible in itself, but is instead completely known in itself. It is non-alienated. A constellation of objects will always be a menagerie located outside the individual, a constellation of ideas that are part of the understanding will always be inside.

We look on material possessions as being substitutes for this understanding, or, if not substitutes, as markers that indicate that the person in question possesses something of equal worth to the objects possessed, without any proof. The measure of competence is competence, not what a person is able to accumulate around themselves.


Sunday, December 08, 2013

Conservatives in the U.S.: right and wrong after 9/11

What happened after 9/11 was a shameful period in American history, one that we're still at the tail end of, as witnessed by the Tea Party. However, even in the rottenness of that time period there were still valid points raised. One of them was the rebirth of a sense of American values, of unique ones, and the criticism of folks who opposed this idea as being part of the 'blame America crowd'. The United States has done a lot of messed up stuff around the world, and continues to do it, however there are also positive features of American society and culture that do exist, and there's some truth to the notion that these things got a little bit of short shrift in the media before 9/11, although this is in some sense exaggerated. But, on the whole, true enough. 

The response to 9/11, though, was completely wrong, and many of those values were either superficially understood and mouthed as slogans, or not understood at all, and instead used to justify whatever revenge fantasy that the person uttering them had at the moment. These values were used to justify authoritarianism, Christian theocracy, racism against people of color who were either Muslims or who seemed to be them, discrimination against Muslims as a whole, the creation of a false 'culture war' between the West and the Muslim world, two invasions, one of which had little justification, the other having no justification whatsoever, Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the list goes on. 

What could have been at least somewhat noble, with a rediscovery of the positive within American society---not to the exclusion of what we do wrong, and have done wrong in the past, but put side by side with it--turned into a nightmare, with things such as the Flag being turned into symbols of oppression, that people in general had to respect--or else. 

Some of the criticism, that boiled down to things like not feeling comfortable in saying that you're proud to be an American before 9/11, may have had some truth....but the solution to that isn't to completely discount the negative things that America has done wrong, but to honor the positive side by side with it...and attempt to stop doing the negative things in the first place and possibly right some of those wrongs that have been committed.


Thursday, December 05, 2013

Nelson Mandela, rest in peace

A good man, who lead South Africa through a period of transition from one of the worst societies in the world to one that, while still having problems, is free of legal racism.