Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Sponsored Post: FT Pub Quiz Takes Look at Wacky 2016 Election Season


As many pundits have noted, this has been one of the most wacky and bizarre political campaign seasons in decades. And I sometimes wonder if we've ever faced an election where the voters were less informed on the issues, and the candidates, than they are today.

I recall reading once about the early days of television. The great TV pioneer Philo Farnsworth, among others, had high hopes for the new medium.

"He thought it would wipe out the need for war, that it would end ignorance and illiteracy. He thought it was an educational tool," Farnsworth biographer Evan Schwartz said.

Needless to say, television didn't exactly live up to Farnsworth's early optimism. He died depressed and in obscurity in 1971.

Similarly, great claims were made for the World Wide Web in its early days. Given the unprecedented access to information that the Web unleashed, it was difficult to fathom how the Internet could ever lead to an increase in ignorance. But sadly, that's just what has happened. And although the Web has indeed been revolutionary and changed our lives, it has hardly wiped out ignorance. Indeed, we all have right-wing friends and relatives who exist in their own little fact-free bubbles and get all their "news" from the likes of Breitbart.

For example, anyone with a Net connection today has easy access to a mind-boggling amount of information and hard science data about global warming. Unfortunately, the same Web that brought us this easy access to such data has also brought us easy access to a huge number of sites that bizarrely continue to dispute the science of global warming.

Today, despite all our technology, there are as many, if not more, misinformed voters than ever before. For example, I get the feeling that only a small fraction of Donald Trump's supporters even really understand what his positions are on the issues. Not that those are set in stone (his positions often seem to change by the day). And we've all had right-wing friends and relatives who've assured us that Hillary Clinton is a "far-left" Liberal (a claim that is of course laughably inaccurate). Hillary definitely has her faults---but being far-left is definitely not one of them.

The FT Pub Quiz video below does a good job of reminding us just how wild and wacky this election season has been.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Progressive Music Classics. The Clash: "Something About England"



Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics, a salute to left-leaning music that champions the cause of working-class people around the world.

One of the highlights of The Clash's 1980 underrated masterpiece, Sandinista! is the haunting "Something About England," a song that gives a whirlwind tour of the disasters of the 20th century. Although the song was released 36 years ago, the opening lyrics seem eerily prescient, as they describe the immigrant bashing that is going on today in both Europe and America.

They say immigrants steal the hubcaps
Of the respected gentlemen.
They say it would be wine and roses
If England were for Englishmen again.

Of course, politicians scapegoating immigrants for a nation's woes is nothing new. But is usually the case with The Clash, the societal problems they described back in the day have only gotten worse over the years (from corrupt governments to the expanding Big Brother surveillance state to widening inequality).

Like many of the cuts on Sandinista!, "Something About England" is a little hard to grasp at first. The band pack so many ideas into the song that with the seemingly rushed production, it almost seems like the whole thing will fly apart at any moment. But that only adds to the sense of urgency and appeal of the song.

At the time of its release, Sandinista! got a lot of flack from critics who complained about its sloppy, haphazard production. But the fact is, a lot of the greatest rock ever recorded has had haphazard production values, from White Light/White Heat to Metallic KO. Indeed, that is often part of its primal appeal. If music is inspired, it doesn't need pristine, state-of-the art production (take a bow, Sun Ra and Robert Johnson).

Love it or hate it, though, Sandinista! definitely had some of the best, most intriguing lyrics that Joe Strummer and Mick Jones ever came up with. Take this heartbreaking lyric from "Something About England," describing the aftermath of World War II:

The few returned to old Piccadilly.
We limped around Leicester Square.
The world was busy rebuilding itself.
The architects could not care.

Back during the horrors of the Reagan years, one of the things that helped a lot of us retain our sanity was the vital, angry protest music of the era from bands like The Clash, Minutemen, Gang of Four, The Jam, The Specials, and many others.

One might think that today's political extremists like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would inspire a new generation of young angry and eloquent musicians. But sadly, all we get are the likes of Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift and the mediocrities of "The X Factor" and "American Idol." Nobody seems to have anything of substance to say any more. It's all the more sad when you realize just how much does need to be said.