Friday, August 25, 2006


Anthemic Reflections: Homeward Bound--Part 1

Note: the following entry was originally conceived as a single entry, but it's grown to such a length that I think I may be better off breaking it up into two, maybe even three sections. I'd even considered drafting it for this space, then fishing it out as an article, but I get the sense that if it ever takes article form, it will have to be heavily edited. Consider it a draft. At present, it is incomplete--there will be more to come in the next few days. my thoughts turn homeward:

This will be a long post. There is much to cover. I left the United States to accompany my wife in her pursuit of a PhD in Geophysics in Sydney, Australia, on February 25, 1999. In September, very close to the fifth anniversary of September 11th, I will return to the United States of America. In the ensuing time, I have spent all of two weeks on American soil, when I returned to act as best man for my close friend, John Arnold. A lot has occurred in those seven and a half years. The first major news story I vividly remember from Australia is Columbine. The news has rarely, if ever, looked so benign since that day. I could say lots, but I think many who come to this blog are already quite familiar with my political point of view, so I'm hoping, in this post, to focus a few of those thoughts as I think about what it means to return to the United States. I need to do this, because I need to think seriously on what it means to be a poet within the United States in these times.

I want to make something clear, before I move on: I am a pacifist in principle, though perfectly willing to concede that there have been wars that may well have been unavoidable in the pursuit of human liberty. I freely admit my weaknesses in the area of forensics, and am regularly known to put the debate in these terms: war, when phrased in terms of aggregate numbers and poorly defined ideology, makes no sense to me. If the basis for a war is ideological, I distrust it, and if the justification for same treats those human lives lost in the course of that war as means to an unrealized end, I have difficulty comprehending the foundational arguments for that war. On the other hand, I respond well to practical measures, to measurable ends, and to real worth being assigned individual life--no matter of what nationality. I could, on this basis, delve a bit into the rationale behind opposition to the current conflicts in the Middle East, but truth be told, I feel like the arguments against these wars are more than adequately represented online, and I suspect any argument I could make along those lines would suffer somewhat from my disinterest in military matters, and would thus suffer in comparison to those who are better informed in those areas. In other words, I'm not out to convince with this post: I merely wish to collect my own thoughts, in the hopes that I might better understand my own individual path forward, in a time and a place in which I feel it necessary to give voice to these issues. And a voice--one in over six billion--is all I really feel I have to offer this debate--so it is around voice that I feel it necessary to focus these thoughts.

At the core of this debate, as I see it, is a necessary engagement of the one human capacity I most trust--though that trust has, in recent years, suffered some serious challenges--and that capacity is communication. This same capacity, not coincidentally, lies at the center of my own sense of the aesthetic: those artifacts that fail to convey some message--no matter of what nature--to the recipient are, in my view, quite simply put, failed artifacts. They may well explore some important aspect of the medium being used, thus proving inaccessible to a recipient who is not well versed in the medium under scrutiny, and they may better communicate at some future point in time, when "common" understanding of that medium is more thorough, but insofar as an aesthetic takes into account the volatile element of context, they fail. There's a good chance that much of what I have written fails. I'm not adverse to that, and I feel it a risk all communication must take in order to advance our common dialogue, but as a member of the audience, if an artifact does not somehow "speak" to me, I cannot make an argument for its beauty.

I can, and do, accept that the fault may lie in me, but the point is that my sense of beauty is intimately tied up with my sense of the communicable. Beauty communicates itself. It is a message. There is a sender, and a receiver. It must engage a medium, and it must be conveyed through a channel. Absent any of those elements, it fails, because it does not communicate. Understand, this is not about some universal sense of beauty: there is no grasping after an artifact that speaks to all people in the same way involved in these assertions. I am simply stating my own sense that beauty is inextricable from the manner and means by which it communicates itself. I suppose, at base, this really isn't so different from the assertion that, in attempting to separate form and content, we lose something central to the artifact under scrutiny.

In the last twenty-four hours, I have received two such artifacts--videos--that I think address some of my central concerns regarding current events, both decidedly "pop" in strategy and aim. The first--and, I think, the more "manipulative" (in as value-neutral a sense as that word is capable of at this point in its history)--is a video sent to me by my wife: Green Day's Wake Me Up When September Ends. The second is a short segment from The Daily Show, with particular emphasis on the material beginning at the 3:45 mark. Both of these videos contain highly politically charged material, but they do so in quite different fashions. In the interests of getting at a core central concern regarding my primary focus, I'd like to devote a couple of paragraphs to an admittedly superficial expurgation of these two videos, from which base I hope to illustrate my primary points.

A word on Green Day: I'm old enough, and have listened to enough music, to have lost track of the many times I've chalked some song up to the "one-hit wonder" category: Beck's Loser and The Beastie Boys' Fight for your Right are but two examples of how very wrong I've been in the past, and Basket Case is a third. I was the wrong age to be seriously taken by this band, and when I first saw the video, what I saw was a hybrid of The Pistols and The Femmes, which left me giving them high marks for shared taste, low marks for originality. And while I have to admit I have a knee-jerk positive reaction to a lot of what Billie Joe Armstrong has to say about politics, I'd class it, pretty much, in the "Stupid White Men" category of political commentary--that is, unnecessarily simplistic and given to much the same tendency toward that form of reverse discrimination that tends to ennoble anything that's not part of a core power structure. If it's criticism I want, I'm much more likely to gravitate toward people like Noam Chomskey, Susan Sontag and Seymour Hersh for analysis of what's presently going on. You can fault those sources--and perhaps you'd be right to do so--but making a strong case against them requires a bit more brainpower than does debunking Billie Joe Armstrong or Michael Moore.

That said...

If appreciating the aesthetic qualities of Green Day's output is at all analogous to appreciating a Michael Moore film, i.e., at some point inseperable from the politics that drive the piece, I suppose at base I'm one of their ilk. But I don't think the two inseperable. I very much appreciated "Bowling for Columbine" as an aesthetic object, though I found much to fault with its presentation of "facts" and its underlying thesis: primarily, the film brought out that undergraduate love for all things post-modern, and--as I did upon watching Fahrenheit 911 (a film I did not enjoy) after it--mostly I wondered why it was that Moore was never able to take that final step that would propel much of his work past "effective" and into the realm of "great," namely, turning his questions upon his own work. In "Bowling," this could perhaps have taken the form of applying his central thesis--that much of what is wrong with contemporary American culture is the product of unnecessary fear-mongering, to the point of straight out paranoia, by mainstream media outlets--to his own work. Moore, too, partakes of this fear-mongering, and "Bowling for Columbine" is a prime example of precisely that, but Moore either doesn't have the chops or the guts to point that spotlight back upon his own work. If he did so, the work might be less immediately persuasive, but, I think, would be considerably more worthy as an aesthetic object. These reflections lie entirely outside of my own opinion that mainstream media does function upon unnecessary fear mongering, an opinion fueled, no doubt, by my experience as a teenager in a perfectly ordinary town in Oklahoma, listening as the adults around me hatched bizarre theories about how the Crips and the Bloods would swoop down on our fair city every year during the Tri-State Music Festival to replenish their numbers by recruiting new members from marching bands and young Oklahomans mostly just grateful for one time out of the year when there was something to do other than watching the stock car races at the local speedway. Paranoia's an ugly thing, and it deserves to be criticized--I just didn't think Moore went far enough.

In this respect, Green Day's Wake Me Up When September Ends benefits from the virtue of brevity, as well as the wise decision, in both the lyrics and the video, to keep things open-ended. In fact, the song, which Armstrong originally intended as a memorial for his father, has enjoyed much the same fate as The Time of Your Life in its versatility: it has been used as a tribute to the victims of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and Joey Ramone. No doubt, in less public ways, it has served as tribute to many others. The video, however, makes a pretty pointed effort at casting the song in the light of Armstrong's well known anti-war stance, and it's not particularly subtle about how it goes about doing it. The lyrics of the song itself are not particularly high poetry--but then, Green Day never was about high poetry--but they are a paragon of restraint when compared to the story line of the video. Both are painted in the broad, sweeping strokes we've come to expect from our popular fare: the lyrics in their equation of summer with "innocence" and rain with pain, and the video in its simplified representation of the motivations behind love and war. There's a classical shorthand at work here, one that I find vaguely irritating on an aesthetic level, but the video greatly benefits from a number of sound decisions regarding narrative tension: the long opening sequence is an open question, with the boy's words, right down to his response to the girl's profession of love--"I know"--being as applicable as a prelude to a break-up as they are to what actually transpires within the video, and the decision, in the second dramatic sequence, to withhold the nature of the boy's actions--on first viewing, it's not at all unlikely that one might interpret the girl's distress as being the result of his having been unfaithful--propels the viewer forward to the realization of what he has, in fact, done. I can't help but suspect that the underlying equation made between infidelity and betrayal, on the one hand, and the boy's decision to enlist on the other, is not entirely coincidental. That said, in my own viewing, if such an equation was intended, I was not given the sense that infidelity was directly attributable to the boy. There's a larger villain here, and this video is a clear reaction to that villain. What is most compelling, however, and what I think fuels much of the popularity of this piece, is how the video serves to frame the song, and how both are framed by the times in which they occur. Logic can serve any master, and with the right set of statistics, you can argue either for or against the decision to invade Iraq, but most people are not making either decision based solely upon logic. Nor, would I argue, should they. Emotions are not always--or even usually--the best possible foundation for the political stances one takes, but they are far from irrelevant, both by virtue of their being the foundation that the vast majority of humans do use, and by virtue of the fact that they are not entirely dispensible as analytical tools. This video speaks to that fact: real lives are being destroyed by these decisions, on all sides, and real consequences will be felt as a result. This video points out some of the negatives, and as contrived as the narrative sequence may be, I don't think it entirely removed from the everyday reality many face.

My reaction to this video speaks directly to what I regard to be my first "failing" in any analysis of the current war: those who argue for it tend to be armed with timelines and casualty figures (remarkably vague, always, on the number of Iraqis who have fallen in this war), and the fall-back position is almost inevitably ends-based utilitarianism: there is much citing of the number of victims that "would have resulted" had we decided not to invade, and comparison of highly disputable casualty figures within Iraq, and the numbers are always such that the hypothetical "had we not invaded" number of casualties is higher than the one currently being suffered. Maybe so. I don't claim to know. What I claim, rather, is that when I read the story of Aya al-Astal, a 9-year-old Palestinian girl who was shot to death when she wandered too close to the border between Israel and the Gaza strip, I think of the terror I would feel were my own 9-year-old daughter to suffer a similar fate, and I cannot help but find myself sharing the grief of her parents. Is this any basis for policy decisions? Of course not. And of course, only the most craven among the hawkish members of our society would argue that she in any way deserved that fate, though I've no doubt that someone, somewhere, has already made much of the fact that Aya's mother voted for Hamas. This is the sort of terror we are meant to think around and accept as necessary by those--again, on both sides--who insist that war is inevitable. And it is precisely this sort of story that finds this pacifist in solidarity with the speaker of Bruce Cockburn's most well-known song, through a fervent wish, contradictorally enough, for possession of a rocket launcher for just long enough to right some long-suffered wrongs. The only thing that quells that sickening sense of a need for retaliation is a deep sense of the futility of so reacting.

All of which is to say I understand that desire for retaliation...understand it better than I'm capable of effectively relating, actually, but that I have made a decision not to act solely on that basis. Nor to justify those actions I undertake on that basis through appeal to a hypothetical scenario, dressed up as logic and masquerading as a utilitarian argument.

Next: Anthems and Virality

Interesting start. Looking forward to the next installment.
Gene - been a while since we've been in touch, but Bubblegum put me back onto your blog - and I'm glad I'm back reading this - great stuff.
Randall--thanks. I have a start, but just realized today that it's kind of developing toward a thesis, which is not really the purpose of these pieces--I need to pull back. I'm about to leave Korea (on Saturday, actually), may have about 6 hours to hammer away at a PC while waiting for my flight, and may get something up at that point. It's a crazy time on my end.

Jimbo! Haven't heard from you in a while, and it's a funky coincidence that you wrote when you did, as just last night I watched--for the first time--Black Adder's "Goodbyeee" episode (in which they go "over the top") as you suggested I do a while back. It's up on Youtube, so easier to access these days. Good stuff.

Haven't been by Toytown for a while, that discussion around statutory rape kinda put the nail in the coffin for me. Well, that and the fact that I'd been away from all but the virtual Munich for 6 months, and TT found me nurturing some serious homesickness (I'd go back in a heartbeat--actually thought I had a lead earlier this summer, but it turned out to be bunk) at the expense of on the ground connections. I've made scads of friends--mostly waegugin (foreigners) here in town--as I generally do wherever I go, and if stuff doesn't work out in the U. S. of A, I've thrown a couple of wedges under the door as it closes behind me just in case. It's tempting, but if I come back, it will be with family. Mostly tempting because it's fairly easy money, and between my wife and I, I'm certain we could live quite well by local standards and pay down debt from here, most likely to be completely free of it within 5 years. I'm not sure I can say the same for living in the States, and I'm not 100% convinced that I'm gonna carve out any substantive form of happiness within those borders. But I'm willing to give it this go.

Good to hear from you again--glad you found the blog.

Hi Gene:

That's a nice piece of writing you pulled together here. Who's your editor? lol.

I too fret over the war-is-hell knee-jerk crowd. War, no different from life, is fraught with ambiguity. The hardest decisions are never easy.

As for Moore, he exhibits the inferiority complex of his Flint Michigan milieu. They grew up looking over one shoulder waiting for The Man to drop the axe on their jobs. He snipes at the boss but really has no prescriptive remedies i.e. he would shit his pants if called to run the factory. He's a gadfly by constitution. So I think I share in your disappointment with him.

If your stateside return gets you to the DC area, drop me a line. We have plenty of space if you ever need a crash-pad.

take care
norm ball
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