The End of Civil Rights

Forgive another re-post; this was written before Trump, but seems timely again (if a little controversial) as we consider where to go from here:

Civil Rights is Dead

For a post-Trump (and lengthier) view, see John McWhorter’s article on the need for a new, more inclusive PC.

Trump completes the circle

My conservative friends have abandoned all hope for me long ago, and with good cause. My liberal friends, at least those under the age of 40, may also have their doubts about me. The 2016 U.S. election gives me an opportunity to complete the circle, so let me take a few moments to drive my liberal brothers and sisters crazy.

First, my thoughts on Trump in brief. My hunch is that he will be a terrible president – ill-informed, reckless, and easy manipulated (despite the outward braggadocio) by people who actually understand politics and world affairs. But I understand why many, including some of my friends and family, voted for him (albeit a mistake in my view). They were sick of politicians, sick of political correctness, sick of the climate in which everyone must parse every word and self-censor before every comment. To them, Trump’s showy disregard for political correctness had its appeal. And the white working class people who had worked hard all their lives and were now struggling were perhaps tired of being told to shut up and appreciate how privileged they were. (To my liberal friends, I am not commenting on the truth value of “privilege” claims, but only on the perception by this segment of voters.) This predicament left them easily swayed to vote Republican and vote Trump (against their own economic interest).

Am I saying that liberals are to blame for Trump’s victory? No, conservatives who have created the alt-right through talk radio, Fox News, and other media arms of disinformation carry most of the blame. But I do say that liberals do not get out of the blame scot-free. At least some self-examination may be helpful. The tendency in the past few decades for liberals to build walls instead of bridges has perhaps contracted their sphere of influence outside of academia and left them all too often preaching to the choir. It was not always this way. In the 1960s and 70s, hippie liberals were out to bust it all wide open and eliminate restrictions on what to do, what to say, on living and loving arrangements. They were the rebels against cultural policing. Today’s liberals, on the other hand, have become the cultural police. I understand the good intent – to stamp out racism and xenophobia and toxic speech and ideas – but the practical result is counterproductive. Forever warning people that they can’t do or say or wear this because of their demographic identity, scarlet-lettering everyone who disagrees with you as racist or misogynist, shuts down communication. Sure, official members of the KKK needs to be scarlet-lettered. But in this case, branding 47.2% of the U.S. population, burning that many bridges, has no practical value. If you’re lumping in half the population with the KKK, you might revisit your metric because you’re giving way too much to the KKK.

I live in a conservative part of the country (when not in Germany). Although my inner-city neighborhood in New Orleans tracks liberal, the metro area in general tracks conservative. I have friends and family members who voted for Trump. They did not do so because they hate women or minorities or immigrants. When Trump made his comments about the border, they did not hear, “He hates all Mexicans and Muslims.” They heard, “He has no problem with legal immigrants or Mexicans in general; he wants to better control illegal immigration to serve those who are here (including legal immigrants). He believes that stable, successful Mexicans are less inclined to jump the border, so the ones who come, although some are good people, tend to include more of the criminal element … He has no problem with Muslims in general; he believes the world has an Islamic terrorism problem and we need to address it at our borders.” Etc.

You can argue until you’re blue in the face that what you heard was more accurate than what they heard, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere. That’s just wall-building, getting both sides to circle the wagons. Since my own ear tends to track liberal, I could conclude that they are racist xenophobes and effectively shut down all communication. I prefer to conclude that they are wrong on the policy and on some of the social assumptions, but that they are essentially good people. I prefer to keep communication channels open. I prefer to hear any crazy theories they want to put forward and to haggle them out over a beer. I prefer to build bridges. May they learn a little bit from me, and may I learn a little bit from them. We should be celebrating conflicting voices at the table. The only way forward is through dialectic, not monologue. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Especially now. There is too much at stake with the impending Trump presidency, which does not bode well in my opinion, for the 47.2% (Trump) and the 47.9% (Clinton) to each construct their own walled citadel.

Thus Trump may complete the circle for me. Conservatives wrote me off long ago and perhaps my liberal friends may do the same, pushing me off the existing spectrum and one step closer to my own post-political wonderland. Then again, maybe i’m not the only one heading that way.

Caveats

  1. Do not misread. This is NOT an argument against passionately opposing Trump and Republican policy proposals whenever you find them unacceptable.
  2. I know I might have to eat these words one day, but until then I’m sticking to the idea that we’re all on the spaceship Earth together, like it or not.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

I can’t say I’m very invested in the debate about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, but I can picture how the deliberations might have played out. The plus side is fairly simple. His songwriting played an enormous role in shaping the sensibilities of a seismic cultural shift in the 1960s and thus (insofar as it was a seismic shift) of cultural trajectories thereafter. I imagine all at the table would also grant that Dylan has proven himself both a great and highly prolific songwriter.

But, respond the naysayers, songwriting is at least as much about instrumentation and melody and musical coordinates as it is about the verbal. Dylan may have had as profound an impact on culture as such previous winners as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, but does the verbal element in the songs, on the page without the music, reach the same level of word-built architecture as One Hundred Years of Solitude or Song of Solomon? Or if one defines “literature” more broadly to include the musical elements, then does the next short list include McCartney/Lennon and a host of other songwriting megastars? Such stars deserve their awards but should a literature award be reserved for more purely literary forms? Or should we just give awards for art in general, avoiding all discrimination of genres?

The arguments that weighed against the choice of Dylan must have been no light load. Perhaps we could say that a purely formalist assessment of the words Dylan has written weigh against the choice. This is not to slight the formal beauty of Dylan’s output (I share the enthusiasm for the early Dylan songs of dubious love, social justice, and the crash of human nature into the historical moment, but for the full artful textures of songs and lyrics, give me Blood on the Tracks), but when measured specifically against other winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one might argue that the verbal element on the page in Dylan has not the same stature. But then the historical assessment — the gigantic, multidisciplinary cultural impact – swings back in his favor.

I will leave the pendulum swinging, or if you prefer, suspended in mid-air, to make a curious observation about Dylan’s songs and historical impact. For being such a powerful catalyst for the counter-cultural tide of late 1960s hippiedom and all that came after it, Dylan’s own temperament is not at all “hippie.” If he is a poet, he is a Beat Generation poet, with a little extra 1930s social protest thrown in. Sure, there are threads of idealism, or at least an awareness of the seismic cultural shift (“the times they are a-changing”) in Dylan, but for the most part, any idealism in Dylan remains simmering under the rubble of gritty realism, and tales of hard times in boxcars and back alleys, and a chip on his shoulder that won’t go away (think of “The Idiot Wind’s” chilling response to the woman who misunderstands him, or the all-time masterpiece of schadenfreude, “Like A Rolling Stone,” or even the cynical humor in the love songs). One more easily pictures him among the black-clad poets of North Beach than among the colorful bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. It’s easy to imagine Dylan fidgeting in impatience at the naïve idealism of the flower child generation, although the movers and shakers of that generation, from Jimi Hendrix to the Byrds, were drawing vital energy from Dylan’s repertoire.

The irony of that disconnect between Dylan’s innate cynicism, his street realism, and let’s say it – his crankiness – and the beautiful, flowery idealism he helped spawn, may in fact be one way of explaining his smirk at his own fame, the distemper that always seems to dog the space between him and any award he receives. It’s almost as if he sees his counter-cultural minions – and the award committees honoring him – and he looks skyward and says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Or to focus back on the irony of the Nobel Prize itself, he wants that recognition for his art – for the sheer formal beauty and power of the songs – but shakes his head at the fact that the real recognition is coming not for that formal beauty but for the historical impact of his songs, an impact curiously out of sync with the Beat-shaded sensibility in which they were written. I imagine that Dylan gets the irony. Perhaps much more than the award committees do. Can we blame him then, if commingled with genuine gratitude, he brings that quiet Dylan smirk to the ceremony?

See also Led Zeppelin and Dr. Freud 

The fascinating brain of teen girls

I don’t really know much about the brain of teen girls. As a man, the female psyche must on some level remain for me, as it was for Freud, “a dark continent” (The Question of Lay Analysis, 1926). Freud was prescient enough to know that the mechanisms he studied were the objective mechanisms of identity formation — not the subjective experience itself (the dark continent). He was also progressive enough to warn his fellow analysts against “underestimating the influence of social customs” in discussions of gender and to emphasize that “the proportion in which masculine and feminine are mixed in an individual is subject to quite considerable fluctuations” (Essay on Femininity, 1933).

But enough about Freud. After all the psychology and philosophy and literature I’ve read, I think my daughter (I believe 14 at the time) most succinctly expressed, by accident one day, exactly what it feels like to be a teenage girl. We were wandering a city in Spain — Barcelona, Madrid, I forget which city — and were in a green space filled with monuments. I had momentarily lost her, and then I heard her voice near a monument and came back up to her.

“Hey there. What ya doing?” I asked her.

“Singing. And thinking about how weird I look.”

She tossed the line off casually, but I thought that that was it. The rich and contradictory inner life of the teenage girl in a nutshell.

Now I welcome feedback from those of you who actually were teenage girls (and from those of you who weren’t — unlike some of my younger liberal friends, I reject all restrictions on what you are allowed to say, think, or do, based on your demographic identity).

Kaepernick/Patriotism

In light of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests, I thought this 1969 version of the American national anthem timely once again, full of complex emotions for a complex patriotism – you can hear the social chaos, the agony and machinery of war, but also genuine affection and all manner of poignant emotion. Hendrix brings the anthem into the moment in a way that might rattle rote memory patriots as well as easy-gesture protesters, bringing both groups one step past their comfort zone, one step closer to the hippie ideal where we break through conventional ways of doing things and recognize that we’re all in this together.