Friday, January 25, 2013

Progressive Music Classics. "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Shriekback



Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics.

The late, great Bill Hicks once lamented the decline of intellectualism in the U.S. This dumbing-down of America, he noted, started around the time Ronald Reagan was first elected. Hicks also savaged the pop music of the Reagan era and the increasing tendency of music stars to sell out to the highest corporate bidder (i.e. Madonna shilling for Pepsi, George Michael shilling for Coke).

"What kind of Reagan wet dream do we live in today?" Hicks once asked, in slamming the gutless, money-grubbing pop stars who sold out in the 1980s.

One wonders what Hicks would have thought about today's pop performers. After all, the situation is now far worse than it ever was back in the 1980s. Not only do today's pop stars have no problems whatsoever whoring themselves out to corporate America---but "selling out" rarely even generates much negative publicity these days. At least the likes of Madonna and George Michaels had Hicks around to condemn them back in the 1980s. Today, nobody seems to care.

And if all this wasn't bad enough, today's pop scene is as banal as it has ever been, thanks to the corrosive effect of the likes of Simon Cowell and the whole "American Idol" conveyor belt of soulless mediocrity that clogs up today's airwaves.

Despite Hicks' contempt for much of the music of the 1980s, I get the feeling that he might have liked a band like Britain's Shriekback. Not only did Shriekback never sell out, but their heady, intoxicating music was full of thought-provoking challenging ideas.

One of my favorite Shriekback songs is "Everything That Rises Must Converge" from the band's fine 1985 album, Oil and Gold. The album features phenomenal playing from bassist Dave Allen (whose skills powered the Marxist funk of his previous band, The Gang of Four).

"Everything That Rises Must Converge" is inspired by the 1965 short story of author Flannery O'Connor that addresses the racism of the 1960s in the American South. (O'Connor, in turn, was inspired by French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who, as Wikipedia notes, described "evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity, culminating in the unification of consciousness.")

In recent times, Teilhard's ideas have been expanded upon by futurist Ray Kurzweil, who wrote the 2005 bestseller, The Singularity Is Near.

"Everything That Rises Must Converge" makes for a powerful, thought-provoking Shriekback song of the type that is sorely lacking in today's dumbed-down music scene. Today's music artists don't seem to have much to say beyond: "Be an obedient worker and a good little consumer, and don't question authority."

Incidentally, Shriekback are still an active band to this day. Their 2010 album, Life in the Loading Bay offers some of the finest music of their career.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Guns Only Give Americans The Illusion Of Freedom


Fact: America has by far the fewest restrictions on guns of any First World nation (as well as most of the rest of the world).

Fact: With over 2.3 million people locked up in prison, America has the biggest prison population and the highest incarceration rate of any nation on earth.

What's wrong with this picture?

Gun advocates often claim that guns play a crucial role in giving Americans freedom.

But the fact is, guns only give Americans the illusion of freedom.

America today is a nation is that is awash in guns. There are an astonishing 300 million guns now in circulation in America. But that didn't prevent our nation from turning increasingly into an oligarchy over the past three decades.

Does an abundance of readily available guns really give Americans "freedom"? I'm sure the very thought amuses America's oligarchy. After all, we saw who really controls our government in 2008, when George W. Bush bailed out the crooks on Wall Street with hundreds of billions of our tax dollars.

The true owners of America (the top .1 percent) hijacked democracy in America a long time ago. Today's U.S. government is nothing more than a concierge service to the Rich & Powerful. "Our" government no longer really serves the interests of ordinary Americans. It only serves the interests of the top ultra-wealthy elites.

The fact is, real democracy died long ago in America--and guns did nothing to prevent it from happening.

In reality, the oligarchy that controls the real levers of power in America isn't afraid of guns.

What the oligarchs are afraid of is an informed populace. They're afraid of high-quality public schools. They're afraid of organized labor. They're afraid of publicly financed elections. They're afraid of the repeal of Citizens United and the return of the Fairness Doctrine. In short, they're afraid of real democracy.

The true owners of America are afraid of any change in the law that is going to end the whole gravy train that has enriched them at the expense of the rest of us over the past three decades.

And they're sure as hell aren't afraid of a bunch of NRA types running around with pistols and shotguns.

Could the latter ever really protect America against a tyrannical government? It's absurd to think so.

Let's face it: pistols and shotguns aren't going to get the job done. Small arms will be no match against a professional military that has Predator Drones, aircraft carriers, Navy SEALs, nuclear submarines, stealth bombers, spy satellites, Abrams tanks and nuclear missiles.

However, as I mentioned, gun rights do serve a purpose in America: to fool the masses into thinking that we enjoy a lot more freedom than we really do.

You want real freedom? Try a place like Europe, where you'll find loads of freedoms that most Americans don't enjoy. In Europe, you'll find legal dope, legal gay marriage, legal euthanasia, strong workers' rights, 6 weeks annual vacations, the right to join a union without being fired, good public schools, unlimited speed limits on the autobahn, etc. etc.

Frankly, I think today's Europeans are more free in many ways than Americans are. This is reflected by the fact that Europe's prison population is tiny, compared to the astonishing 2.3 million Americans behind bars.

What's more is that in Europe, the continent's national governments by and large still serve the interests of ordinary people. They have to. Ordinary workers are informed on the issues in Europe. Either the politicians do right by them, or the people will take to the streets to demand their rights.

True, present day Europe has its share of problems (although I think many of these problems are exaggerated by the U.S. corporate media). Having traveled there recently, I've come to realize that Europe is more prosperous than many Americans realize.

The national governments of Europe may not be perfect. But overall, they at least make an attempt to serve the interests of ordinary working people. By contrast, in today's America, "our" government has nothing but contempt for working people.

Oh, and in much of Europe, you can buy a gun. Sure, you might have to fill out some forms first. You might have to deal with some red tape. And you'll have to demonstrate that you're not mentally ill. But yes: gun ownership is possible in many European nations. Which once again raises the issue of how "free" Americans really are, compared to their European counterparts.

For America's ruling oligarchy, easily available guns play a valuable role in maintaining the illusion of freedom. As the ruling oligarchy continues to hijack our democracy and loot our treasury, it really has little to fear from a population that is armed (but largely ignorant of the issues).

After all, the Rush Limbaugh crowd is never going to grasp the fact that the oligarchy is to blame for their declining standard of living. No, thanks to Rush, the dittoheads will just blame their woes on African-Americans, gays, poor people, illegal immigrants, and all the other usual scapegoats.

For America's oligarchy, easily available guns also have another useful function. They help keep the population fearful. Fear and ignorance are powerful tools in repressing America's working class.

America's easily available guns make for one other nice bonus for the Rich & Powerful.

Let's say that in the future a truly independent politician who is hostile to the oligarchy somehow manages, against all odds, to get into the White House.

Thanks to America's easily available guns, it wouldn't be hard for the oligarchy to get rid of such a troublesome politician. They could always turn around and blame a "lone nut" assassin. (They've done it before, after all). And they could always claim, "Well, it's so easy to buy a gun in America, the assassin had no problems buying his gun. It's just the price we Americans pay for living in a free nation."

Do guns really bring Americans freedom? I would argue that the opposite is true.

True freedom doesn't really come from guns. It comes from an informed, educated, politically active working class that isn't afraid to stand up for its rights. That is what the oligarchy that rules America is really scared of.

Friday, January 04, 2013

"Django Unchained" Continues Hollywood's Sad, Shameful Legacy of Dealing With Slavery Era


The critical adulation that greets every new movie by Quentin Tarantino is a sad commentary on our culture. Tarantino is an overrated hack who does nothing more than rip off ideas from vastly superior directors from Europe and Asia. He then waters down these ideas and re-works them into movies that are infinitely inferior to the originals.

Tarantino is hailed as a "daring" and "radical" filmmaker, when in fact his slick, commercial movies are about as daring and radical as a cup of Starbucks coffee.

Django Unchained, the latest Tarantino film, is receiving universally rave reviews, as well as big box office numbers. It has also drawn controversy (which no doubt has boosted the film's box office---as controversy always helps shift product).

I haven't seen Django Unchained and I have no intention of doing so. So why do I already detest this movie and urge my fellow progressives to boycott the film?

It's because I believe that the American film industry really has no business making mere "entertainment" movies about the slavery era.

Hell, America has never even honestly confronted this horrific chapter in our history. In fact, we are still in many ways a racist society. (The incredibly vicious right-wing attacks on President Obama over the past few years merely confirm how racist a nation America is to this day). We can try to pretend we've moved beyond racism as a nation---but we're really just fooling ourselves.

I believe most African-Americans will understand what I'm talking about. But many (if not most) white people won't---which serves to prove my point.

Django Unchained has drawn outrage from a number of notable African-Americans, including director Spike Lee.

"American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western," Lee recently Tweeted. "It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them."

Lee was right. Slavery was a Holocaust. It was one of the greatest crimes in history.

Millions of Africans died during the years of slavery. And the slaves who didn't die suffered a fate that was actually worse than death.

They were locked up in chains. They were forced to work long grueling hours for no pay at the barrel of a gun. They were beaten. They were tortured. They were raped. They were bought and sold like cattle.

Slavery was a horrific crime against humanity. And it was a colossal crime that white America has never honestly confronted.

Germany killed six million Jews during World War II. But at least that nation has made an effort to try to atone at least a little bit for its crimes. Germany has paid billions of dollars in reparations over the decades. The country has also passed strict laws to try to ensure that the nation never forgets its crime. (For example, denial of the Holocaust is illegal in today's Germany).

But America has never atoned in any way for slavery. It has never paid reparations. Indeed, America continued to oppress African-Americans long after slavery ended. America brutally oppressed black people via Jim Crow laws, as well as lynchings, and it treated them like second class citizens for many decades. Black people couldn't even vote in the Deep South, all the way up until the 1960s.

Indeed, Jim Crow still exists in today's America in some ways. The huge numbers of largely low-income black men who are serving long, harsh punishments in prison for nickel-dime petty drug crimes is evidence of that.

What's particularly nauseating about today's America is that so many white people continue to be racist, but deny it.

You've met these people yourself. They include your right-wing brother-in-law who rails against "lazy blacks collecting welfare" while you're trying to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal. These are the people who bizarrely believe white people are somehow the victims of racism these days. They also believe that no black person was ever mistreated in America after 1865.

I know a number of these people. They all listen to Rush Limbaugh's racist spewings. And yet they deny that Rush is racist in any way. Indeed, these are people who privately and routinely use the "N" word (and then publicly declare that they're not racist).

I have nothing but contempt for such people. In fact, I actually have more respect for old-school bigots who were at least upfront about their racism. I'd actually prefer a racist who is at least honest enough to openly use the "N" word and express his hatred for black people. I'll take a bigot like that any day over a typical Limbaugh listener who carefully dances around the "N" word and then denies his racism.

Slavery was a horrific crime. It is not something that America should be using as a topic for mere entertainment in another of Tarantino's overrated films.

It's a sad commentary on just how abysmal the art of cinema is these days that a mediocrity like Tarantino gets the time of day.

And yet critics line up to kiss Tarantino's ass. They over-analyze and over-intellectualize his films. They read a great deal of Deep Meaning into his movies.

But Tarantino doesn't deserve such critical devotion.

For example, consider all the critical commentary and analysis that has been prompted by Tarantino's heavy usage of the "N" word in all of his movies.

Actually, there's no mystery to Tarantino's love of the "N" word. It's nothing more than a crutch to prop up his overrated, weak scripts. The fact is, the "F" word no longer packs a punch, because of over-usage. But the "N" word still does pack a punch. It's still "controversial."

Anyone who thinks there's any Deeper Meaning to Tarantino's heavy usage of the "N" word is kidding themselves.

Critics also constantly praise Tarantino for being a "daring" and "risk-taking" director. But this is nonsense. There is absolutely nothing daring and risk-taking about Tarantino. True risk-taking directors don't enjoy movies that have blockbuster worldwide box office of over $300 million (like Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds did).

Speaking of Inglourious Basterds, that film revealed just how full of crap those who champion Tarantino as a risky, daring director are.

If Tarantino were really a brave director wanting to make a war movie, he would have tackled the Iraq War. That whole evil, rotten enterprise would have been a perfect target for any director who wanted to make an edgy, risky film.

In taking on the Iraq War, Tarantino could have poked a finger in the eye of the whole jingoistic Fox News/NeoCon crowd who cheered the nation into war and who ferociously attacked anyone who dared question their beloved Commander-in-Chief. (We saw a glimpse of the latter when the Dixie Chicks made what was actually a very mild criticism of George W. Bush and received an avalanche of NeoCon hatred and death threats as a result).

Yes, the Iraq War would have been a logical target for any U.S. film director who wanted to make an edgy, brave, risky statement.

So which war did Tarantino target in his movie? World War II.


Like there haven't already been enough films about World War II.

Of course, with Django Unchained, Tarantino is simply following in the footsteps of other Hollywood directors who have a shameful track record of films set in the slavery era.

After all, Hollywood has almost always been dishonest and cowardly when approaching the subject of slavery.

Take, for example, the very first Hollywood feature film ever made: D.W. Griffith's sad, shameful The Birth of a Nation. This was an outrageously racist film that depicted African American men as stupid and as extremely sexually aggressive towards white women. The film also glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

Hollywood's other big blockbuster set in the slavery era, Gone With the Wind, was hardly much better. This was a film that glamorized the old Deep South. Slaves were shown happily singing, laughing, dancing and enjoying a colorful agrarian lifestyle. It was a grotesque distortion of the realities of slavery.

In reducing the horrors of slavery to mere entertainment, Tarantino is carrying on a sad tradition for Hollywood (and indeed American society in general) in refusing to honestly confront America's own Holocaust. It would be impossible to imagine, say, Germany making a similar film about the Jewish Holocaust.

I can hear the Tarantino defenders already, though. "But it's just entertainment!" they'll say.

The problem is that slavery is simply too horrific a crime to be the topic of a movie made for mere entertainment (particularly coming from a white film director). White America has never honestly confronted this horrific crime.

If Hollywood is to ever properly tackle the slavery era, it needs to do so with a respectful, dignified Schindler's List type film (preferably made by an African-American director). What we don't need is an profane, cartoonish, overrated Tarantino ripoff of a Sergio Leone film.