The Tyranny of Cash


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I have to connect to people—but I’m so wrapped up in myself that I’m never actually communicating—I’m expressing myself instead. My generation was very big on expressing ourselves: protest signs, silkscreen T-shirts, buttons, fashion statements, arguing over ethics with our school-teachers, targeted boycotts, song lyrics (with no small amount of encouragement from Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen) and daily, personal journals.

When I think of what I want to say, I’m always thinking about my disagreements with the status quo—thus casting my readers in the role of ‘those who need educating’ rather than simply as ‘people who see things differently’. In this way, I avoid the nasty question of whether I’m always right or I’m just very opinionated. But is there a difference? All the changes made to our society have been propelled by people whose sense of ‘wrongness’ about one thing or another is so strong that they sway our minds to a new point of view.

Yet there is another side to the question—if powerful people couch their rhetoric in the style of the public reformer, and then broadcast their message with the full power of our mass media, they create a skewed playing field wherein the true idealist must do more than present a case—he or she must include a defense against the message of the rich and powerful. As an example, we can recall that brief moment of news-reporting during our last presidential campaign when it was found that the majority of Republicans favored a tax policy that would cost themselves more money—simply because their allegiance to the GOP (or bitterness towards the ‘leftist elite’) came from an emotional place—not from reasoned examination of the facts.

And this can be said of most voters, me included. We get far more excited about the tones and the personalities of our political champions than we ever get about reading the bill(s) in question—indeed, the congresspersons themselves have neither the time nor the propensity to read a 1000+ page legislative bill. It has always made me wonder, ‘Who writes them?” And, do they stick in little jokes just because no one ever reads that last 100 pages? (I would.)

So, I asked myself why our world is so crazy. Silly me—there was a popular tune after the War of Independence—“The World Turned Upside-Down”—which shows that not only are we the ones to blame (the New World colonists) but also that people have asked my simple-minded question for well over two centuries now. Not to mention the distinct possibility that people often felt the same way back in the Old World but chose to avoid being burned at the stake for questioning either ‘God’s creation’ or the monarchial system they once governed themselves by.

Then I saw a powerful analogy. In the last several decades, our laws have evolved to seek out domestic and private abuses of power such as corporal punishment in public schools, police brutality, domestic violence, and predatory, pederast priests. We’ve taken away people’s sense of entitlement about drunk driving, sexual harassment in the workplace, and smoking in shared spaces. We are ever refining our idea of a peaceful but free and equal society.

We do not, however, make much headway on the macroscopic scale. If Syria’s Assad was my next door neighbor, I’d have him arrested for firing his guns in public and endangering the whole neighborhood. If Kim Jong Un lived in Lincolndale, I’d have him arrested for using fireworks without the supervision of the Fire Department. If BP was burning leaves on the front lawn, they’d get shut down with a fine and a warning—and if the pollution persisted he’d eventually do real time for being a scoff-law. If the Amazon Rain Forest was part of our community and a developer tried to level it and pave it over, we’d at least have the opportunity of standing up in Somers Town Hall and railing against this obvious threat to our community’s aesthetic—not to mention its real estate values.

We confine ourselves (at least here in the USA) with far greater severity than the UN is capable of, on a sovereignty level, and we see the occasional crazed gun-nut as a major threat to our way of life—where, in many other countries, the crazed gun-nut is the guy in power. We do our best to be good little citizens of a country that idealizes equality and fairness—in spite of the reality that not all of us are on the same page (or even the same book). I feel a personal affront whenever a third-world power-person criticizes our culture as decadent and stupid. We may not be angels on Earth, but we don’t impose our religion on anyone, we don’t impose second-class status on women, and we protect our children from authority figures who would abuse their power—up to and including the parents themselves.

We have had some trouble lately with religious zealots, particularly in what’s known as the ‘Bible Belt’. With the complete secularization of our social mores, we have deprived the USA’s most active and populous churches of the ability to pollute our society with hate-speech about women, LGBTs, Muslims, Jews or any other ‘minority’ that, taken all together, actually encompass 99% of our citizenry. They have lost the ability to impose their narrow morality on our legislation—they have gone from long-time insiders to fringe-ward outsiders in our present public policy debates. Gays can marry, Women can enter combat, children can refuse to include the phrase ‘under God’ when they pledge allegiance in class each morning.

And we know who the ‘Evangelists’ of the Global Community are—the bankers and arms manufacturers and multi-national corporations. They won’t be going down any time soon and, if they ever do, it won’t be through some namby-pamby election process! No, these powerful groups worship Currency—a god far stronger than the God of Abraham—and they don’t recognize anyone else’s freedom of speech, only their own—plus, they have all the weapons.

But a cardinal problem with these enemies of our freedom is that many of them are an inextricable part of our great nation. The energy combines, particularly the petroleum industries, have a knife of disaster at our throats. The banks and investment companies make up their own rules as they stumble along—but without the bank that unfairly forecloses on our neighbor’s house, we won’t have the bank we need to lend us mortgages for our future houses. The arms-makers are part of an industry that helps America stay strong—even if they also do business with all of our enemies.

No, money is the glue of our civilization, at least for the moment. But we can take solace in the fact that money was not always the sine qua non of our civilization—and there’s hope that someday, it will be no longer. I figure in a world that can get all of New York City to stop smoking in bars and pick up the poop from their dogs’ walks, anything is possible.

Musings on the Steven Kessler documentary “Paul Williams – Still Alive”


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I just watched a documentary, “Paul Williams – Still Alive” (directed by Steven Kessler) on Paul Williams, a great songwriter who was catapulted into fame in the seventies, who has been 20 years sober at the time of the documentary’s filming, and who now lives a more thoughtful life but still does some touring and concertizing.

I remember Paul Williams from my younger days—mostly as a celebrity who turned up on just about any talk show or variety special you can name from that era—but I was also aware of some of his songwriting credits—his songs that were made hits by The Carpenters made me respect him as an artist, but his media-presence showed less of his musical genius and more of his desperation for attention and acceptance—and that was a big turn-off for me. (That is probably because he was doing the same sort of showboating that my own insecurity and introversion would bring out, had it been me who was famous.)

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But there was (there always is) a lot of the ‘big picture’ I was unaware of. For instance, he wrote hits for Streisand (“Evergreen”), Kermit the Frog (“The Rainbow Connection”), Three Dog Night (“An Old Fashioned Love Song”), The Monkees (“Someday Man”)—well, just look him up on IMDb—he is a major thread interwoven into the Movie, TV, and Music industries of his ‘heyday’—and he won multiple Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and other awards including the Music Hall Of Fame. Look him up on their site—the list of song credits is four pages long! He is presently the President of ASCAP which, along with his touring and his family, keep him busy and happy.

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But all that stuff is what I learned from Steven Kessler’s quirky documentary—what I want to talk about is what was running through my own mind while I watched it. Anything related to the Carpenters always brings to mind the tragic helplessness of Karen Carpenter trying to please the whole world and dying from it. It also reminds me of those so-relatable, heartbreaking Carpenters hits that spoke to me with, it seemed, my own voice—the voice of a lonely, yearning teenager who would have (had I been in a position to) willingly sacrificed myself in the same way, just for some intimacy or attention.

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Paul Williams’ songs always had a bitter flavoring, sprinkled on top of the simplest melodies—a plurality that I always associate with that time in my life, and in entertainment history. He was too soft to be akin to the Stones or Dylan or the Who—but he was exploring the emotions the rest of us (the uncool, the unpopular) were feeling when we compared ourselves to Mick Jagger—or even to the most popular jock or cheerleader in our own schools.

There was other stuff too—iterations of the same pattern—such as being condescended to by peers who ‘knew’ what ‘real’ music was. The truth, that I was much more familiar with music in general, including Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Nationalist, Ragtime, and with the popular music of that entire first half of the twentieth century, pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles, was practically meaningless, since the ‘serious’ music officiandos and taste-arbiters of my school days discounted all of that as merely the dross that lead to the ‘real’ music of our day.

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But I don’t have to dissect the teenage psyche—it was bad enough without going over it again, don’t you think? The truth is that taking a serious attitude towards anything is a mistake while in the adolescent milieu. And that was me—too serious, too oblivious, too insecure, and a teacher’s pet (the fate of all who do too well in class).

And now, forty-some years later, I finally realize that my musical influences were not The Beatles, The Monkees, Three Dog Night, etc. Those were performers—no, my real influences were the songwriters—Bob Dylan, Carol King, Neil Sedaka, Paul Williams, Randy Newman, Lennon & McCartney, etc. Each music group had its own special timbre, but the music they played was very often written by someone else.

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We once looked at these legendary rock bands as idealists, champions of truth and justice—or, conversely, as turncoats who had ‘sold out’ or ‘knuckled under’ to The Man. We were too young to see them simply as professional musicians and performers—we completely overlooked the fact that all these groups had contracts with major labels, managers and agents that molded their repertoire, and far more personal demons and foibles than personal crusades.

We were fundamentalists of rock n’roll, really—we ignored all the factual details and bestowed upon our rock gods a great power and knowledge that only existed in our dreams. And every advance that ‘Music’ made back then rendered the previous gods and goddesses suddenly immaterial—there were times when Dylan was too ‘old’, the Beatles were too ‘banal’. And many were the stars who shone only briefly, until the cool kids came to a consensus about their authenticity as ‘hard’ rockers, or their lack of same. Some of the artists who failed this test were among my favorites—Beach Boys, Abba, Cat Stevens, the Association, Herman’s Hermits, Peter Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Donovan—the list is endless.

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And I’ve had the cold comfort, over the years, to see many of my favorites enjoy a comeback, or a re-assessment, that in some way validated my early, uncool opinions. Some of the old groups and artists have even surfaced here and there as cult figures—Abba, Barry Manilow, the Monkees, Neil Diamond—and I, for one, am gratified that the quick dismissal of we teenagers of the 1960s-1970s was not the final word on the quality of their music—and that many, many other people still feel as strongly as I do about that early music.

Musical seriousness is something I’ve always avoided. Judgmental attitudes about the aural arts have their place, when speaking of professional musicians. They work hard enough at their field and their lives are made or unmade by their artistic choices—they have every right. But as audience members, people who take their music seriously enough to question someone else’s tastes are just being disagreeable on purpose—or so I see it, anyway. Think of the YouTube videos that show toddlers in car seats, bopping their entire bodies along with heavy metal or rap songs—how they cry when it’s turned down, and how they’re right back to bopping when the volume is restored.

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To me, that is the essence of music appreciation—love whatever you love and don’t waste time disrespecting someone else’s choices. Today’s ear-buds free us from even having to share our musical tastes to hang out together. And music, good or bad, is not improved by arguing over it. In the end, I’ve come to only one problem—I love so much music, and it can only be listened to one track at a time—I’m spoiled for choice, as they say.

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Thoughts on President B.H. Obama’s 2nd Inaugural


Google chose to celebrate the MLK Day aspect of today, rather than the 2nd Inaugural Ceremony

Google chose to celebrate the MLK Day aspect of today, rather than the 2nd Inaugural Ceremony

What a beautiful and galvanizing celebration of the most idealistic aspect of our nation’s character, the peaceful appointment to power, either for the first time, or, as today, for another four years. For all the acrimony and rabble-rousing of politicos and their viewers, we all nevertheless accept, on both sides, that we are one nation and that we all accept our chosen leader (whether—as individuals—we chose him or not).

The musicians, James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson, and Beyoncé, all made our hearts swell and our eyes tear up. The poet laureate’s Inaugural Poem was layered with iconic imagery of small points and grand visions, candid moments and desperate struggles—a beautifully, evocative work that could not have been more apt to the occasion. Even the meteorology cooperated, with a brisk breeze that furled our Stars and Bars to picture-perfection!

The first daughters, fortunate in being so close, obviously comfortable with their side-roles—where single children, or crowds of sibs in large families, have no such intimate and mutually supportive partners for this, the most public of childhoods. The absence of many Republicans was politely overlooked by the celebratory crowd—and I, too, was very forgiving and sympathetic towards the GOP—their recent repudiation by the majority of Americans has left them stunned and confused.

But most of all I enjoyed the shots of the Clintons, arm in arm, especially Hillary. Her grin was ear-to-ear and one could easily imagine her lightness of spirit as she attended what for her was, in some degree, the last day of school. She had gone from NY Senator to Democratic Candidate for President to Secretary of State. And as Secretary of State, she had spent the last four years circling the globe, arbitrating world crises both major and minor, and bringing herself to exhausted collapse right up to the last days of her appointment. Nor has her work gone unnoticed—her efforts have been roundly applauded by all but the most dyed-in-the-wool Neo-Cons. Most important of all, she helped President Obama to ‘grow down’ our existing wars, without getting us into another one out of sheer jingoist bombast.

She almost died doing the work of ten men (and I use the term ‘men’ advisedly) and spent a week in hospital in her last appointed month of service. That joyous glow showing in her face as the 2nd Inaugural Public Ceremony rolled along was, I assume, the face of someone who was about to have a real ‘day off’ for the first time in a decade. For someone of Hillary Clinton’s character, we should not be surprised if she becomes restless after just a few days or weeks of this pause in the juggernaut of her career. But, as I heard Rachel Maddow say so well while commentating on today’s ceremony, even if the stress of her ceaseless toil makes it impossible for her to do anything else in future public service (much less run in 2016) she has already left her indelible mark on American history, as first lady, senator, and secretary of state.

I have had some personal experience with what we usually call ‘burn-out’, whether from business, government service, politics, or life itself, and I would not lay any criticism upon Ms. Clinton if she did allow herself to say ‘enough’. In our present society, there isn’t nearly enough attention paid to the idea of diminishing returns in life. We live our lives ferociously, obsessively, often too narrowly—the benediction to ‘stop and smell the roses’ has become as much of a joke as ‘trust me’ or ‘why can’t we all get along’. But as we ceaselessly compete against our relations, our neighbors, our co-workers, and the rest of the world—as we dig deeper and deeper for those goals that any self-respecting person could set themselves—we give up the most important part of our founding Declaration, the ‘pursuit of happiness’.

If our goals in life require unending struggle and toil, absence from our loved ones, and even acceptance of the ‘every one for themselves’ ethics (or, I should say, lack of ethics) of our business world—what, then, is the purpose of our lives? Shouldn’t our lives be balanced between hard work and rest, sadness and joy? The United States of America has led the world from far ahead of most other countries for a very long time and there is one reason—we sincerely believe in the dignity of every person. That freedom and equality have shaped our country and given the world a good example. And I think it is time we embraced the cardinal issue of our times—quality of life.

In recent times we have seen the richest people in the world get richer off the defrauding of everyone else—and then get ‘bailed out’ corporately while the selfish business leaders hand out golden parachutes to each other. Having destroyed our economy with their eyes wide open, they then take advantage of the high unemployment to enforce a renewed despotism over those ‘lucky’ enough to have a job.

The working man, once the bedrock of our middle class, has been reduced to a new birth of slavery wherein the corporation takes all one can give, and tries mightily to reduce compensation to its lowest possible limit. That’s not even taking into account the millions of ‘part-timers’, who are part-timers only in the sense that they are denied the legal rights of an ‘employee’!

Our children are never seen playing in their yards—their homework and extra-curricular activities have taken up every moment of what used to be called ‘after school’—a period of life that I remember fondly, full of chatter and games and just hanging out.

Corporate culture has seeped into every aspect of our lives—and corporations are given more rights by denying what we formerly thought of as our rights, back in the legendary times of consumer protection, OSHA, and financial regulation. The twenty-four-hour news and media place our minds firmly in the morass of global crises we can do little to change, and distracts us from the less sensational, but more meaningful, issue of what’s going on in our own state, county, or neighborhood.

We end up imagining ourselves in direct competition with hordes of cheap labor in newly developing countries like China or India—but it is our corporations that have created these sweatshops, then used their existence in a bald-faced attempt to force our own workers to bow to this neo-slavery. It isn’t as obvious a controversy as Civil Rights or Education, but it is nevertheless one we are required to address if we want our lives to have meaning to ourselves and not just to the accountants in corporate headquarters.

So I have spent these past years on disability, a disability due as much to the stress of the business environment and the ossification of a super-wealthy-upper-class into an irresistible power, as it was to nerve damage and brain entropy. How can it be that many of today’s businesspersons suffer from symptoms similar to some returning war veterans, a PTSD born not of battle, but of greed and carelessness? Why do we feel tempted to use the phone while we drive, if not from a deep insecurity with the seconds that fly by without being used to compete, to earn a living, to get an education? We are voluntarily torturing ourselves!

I wish people would just start acting like they did in the seventies—back then, ‘all work and no play’ was considered a recipe for ill health, both physical and mental. I wish people would start taking 35 minutes for lunch, instead of the obligatory 30. I wish people would drive more slowly each morning—honestly, why are we in such a rush to get to our slave-cubicles? So what if there are millions out of work? There is still an inconvenience, and added cost, when firing employees—and any manager knows darn well that a good person for a specific job isn’t easy to find. Workers of the World, throw off your self-imposed chains…

Thus I say if Hilary Clinton has done her all (and I think that’s beyond argument) we should respect the toll such sacrifice takes—not badger her about running for President. Even if she does stand for the office in four years, the job will be plenty stressful as is, without Ms. Clinton being hounded about it starting today.

Getting back to the inauguration, I love the magic of a second term—Obama’s speech was an affirmation of all the issues that we’ve tip-toed around during the overextended campaigning—he will fight for LGBT rights, he will fight for equal pay for women, and he will continue to lead America without feeling obligated to deploy troops at the drop of a cowboy hat—and, more importantly, to fight for the benefits and gratitude our nation owes to all its defenders-at-arms.

Well, a TV show like that is bound to make the rest of the day anti-climactic—but I’m still feeling the heat of so much togetherness and patriotism in my chest.

Hooray for us!