Monday, May 24, 2010

The Songs of Present Earth

If there's any one sci-fi novel that'll make you think long after you've finished it, it is Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's novel The Light of Other Days. I've talked about wormholes and privacy and whatnot in previous posts. This time, I want to bring up Clarke's The Songs of Distant Earth. The story takes place on an island archipelago on a planet far from Earth. The colony that has been sent there was chosen, as most colonists are, as the best genetic specimens of our species. With them was a computer database filled with the art and music and literature of mankind. What was left out of the collection was anything that had to do with religion, or mankind's prejudices. Which meant that many works of art had to be left out. Handel's Messiah, for instance. That little caveat, however, is not what I want to focus on. It really is a good book, which I would suggest reading.

We fly around on this ship we call Earth, and the amount of literature and music and art pile up, with fluff and useless pieces of garbage (see Transformers 2) being hailed as important (through people's wallets, anyway) while masterpieces of human creativity are quietly forgotten, to be lost to mankind. Maybe this is my hoarding genetics shining through, but I've always wanted the masterpieces to be kept in the public eye. There are books which I have read which are now out of print and will eventually be forgotten in the landfills of human materialism. Take Christopher by Richard M. Koff. Only kids book he wrote, only one of two period. But it was magnificent. And yet, I wonder how many copies are in Georgia, where I live. Forgotten on bookshelves and discarded from libraries because they haven't seen the light of day. How wonderful it would be to see these books brought to the top of the ocean's current, like an upwelling of water to see the sunlight. Or take Frank Bonham's The Missing Person's League. Yes, it's a little dated, but this 1970's sci-fi novel of environmental disaster and families disappearing was amazing when my 5th grade teacher read it to us some 20 years later. But now it's out of print, and who knows if it'll be reprinted.

In music, we do have some artists who see the brilliance of songwriters from past times and are trying to keep them afloat. In my last blog, I talked about Natalie Merchant's Leave your Sleep. And a few blogs ago, I reviewed David Gray's Thousand Miles Behind. Both of these albums are tributes to the poets and songwriters which came before these two singers. Gray covered tunes from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, and others. So many wonderful songs that will simply sink to the bottom of the ocean of material that mankind has made these days. We have to keep those masterpieces alive. To give something to the future colonists so that they know more of the human race than songs by Lady Gaga.

On Fox News last week, Bill O'Riley ran a story about the anniversary of Youtube, and it got me to thinking. Youtube is our database on this ship. It's where we can all look and find supposedly forgotten pieces of our lives brought back to life. Television shows, songs, works of art, pieces of music. It's all there, for whatever purpose we should give it. And sure, some of it is junk. Some of it drives home the most vile of human qualities. The videoed school fights and the pieces showing how utterly despicable we can be, sure, those are on there. Our dirty laundry for the world to see, and we show it proudly, for some reason. It makes no sense. But the truth, as it is presented in such a twisted way, shows also how marvelous mankind can be when it wants to. The exalted are sat side by side with the depraved.

His poll, at the end of the story, was whether or not the viewer thought that Youtube was a good or bad influence on society. Now, of course you can't answer that with a simple yes or no, because it's both. But the positive aspects of the web site far outshine that of the negative. Youtube is, ultimately, a capitalist adventure. They show commercials and run adds just like any other website does. But they also are used heavily by promoters of movies, music, political races, etc... The flip side of Youtube is that, ultimately (and hopefully this won't change, but that's another subject), it's free. People can upload movies, for good or for ill, anytime they want into a public storagehouse for everything that goes on in the human world. It is a true melting pot for mankind. And while the ocean of information keeps growing (Youtube now hosts more space than all of the Internet in 2000, a mere 10 years ago.), the ability to easily find videos, which are linked by keyword to other videos, is amazing. Years from now, when archeologists dig up the remnants of this world, if they still have the Internet (or some equivalent), Youtube would be the greatest time capsule they could ever hope for. It would tell of the human condition, both good and bad, for the whole universe to see.

As an addendum to this blog, I wanted to include links to a couple of the Youtube videos I found. One is David Gray singing Tim Buckley's work "Song to the Siren," from the above mentioned album. The video is a picture with an mp3 file embedded, so it's not necessary to watch it. The second is a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Jonathan Coulton. Again, just the lyrics with the mp3 backing. Which is good, because live concert clips don't have the best audio. Maybe not the best representatives of Youtube's millions of posts, but they are masterpiece songs that shouldn't disappear from mankind's database.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Reviews, Reviews! : Apologize; Natalie Merchant

Book Review: Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly

Call it a Tragi-comedy, a mixture of Shakespeare and Ferrol Sams, with elegant writing and bawdy actions to thrill lovers of Southern Literature and literature fanatics. It's like Pat Conroy, but on the shores of Boston's rich and secluded coast. It would be similar if one of the Kennedy's suddenly decided they didn't want to be a Kennedy anymore, but were powerless to do anything but be that.

Ultimately, it's the story of a family who lives under a rich and Paternal figure called "The Falcon," who dolls out money and keeps his daughter (the mother of the main characters) without need or wants...which of course she rebels against at every opportunity. She names her children after dogs... Collie and Bingo are her two sons, and the house bounds with dogs. Her husband is an Irish drunk, married because his hair was red. Imagine Conan O'Brian as an alcoholic. For the first half of the book, it's hard to eat and laugh at the same time (and since I read while I eat, it got difficult.)

In the end, however, it's about the two brothers trying to flee their overbearing and eccentric mother, their dysfunctional family, and the mountains of money that seems to follow them wherever they go. The amazing thing about the book is that, for sometime after it was over, I didn't understand some of the symbols of the book. Yes, there are symbols. The dogs, the racing pigeons... the animals in the book are constant reminders that, however hard you try to change yourself, to become something new and different, without fail, you will always come home. And as my grandmother says, "Home is where, when you come there, they have to take you in."

Music Review: Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant.

How wonderful, in the day of Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, that there are musicians who take the world of music seriously, who apply the gift of music to something other than just making money, and turn music into a work of art.

What Natalie Merchant has done with this work, a culmination of several years of research, lovingly laborious, is take her experiences of raising a child and a family, taking the poetry and the music that appeals to children and make it appeal to everyone. Because there's a universal quality to the songs that she performs on this album. And no wonder that there is a mixture of jazz, bluegrass, folk, Chinese, and pop music, all present on this work. The words are taken from poems written by obscure, masterful poets from the 18th and 19th centuries. They are reprinted in an 80 page booklet along with short biographies of each of the writers. It is amazing that she has taken these poems, brought them out of the "yellowed pages" of forgotten books and into the American consciousness. It is my hope that Merchant will be known for this album, that it will become a landmark piece of American music. But you don't have to take my word for it. Below is an interview she gave, along with the music video of "Equestrienne," which is my favorite song on the album. Something about 3/4 (or 6/8) songs gets me hooked.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pendulum, Part 2

A response to a question I had about my original post:

How do you keep the pendulum swinging - because it will have to's a pendulum - without some polarization? I understand that over divisiveness will only create trauma for all parties involved, but there comes a point when neither side can meet in the middle. How can anyone keep a part of themselves (true individuality) ... without sacrificing who they are or what they believe in - even if it helps the greater good? Are you stating that each party should lessen off of who they are?

It's a confusing issue.... made as such because we've squeezed it down to a one dimensional way of looking at it (btw, I'm using IE right now, so spell check is off... I'll edit it later in Firefox). Let's take a look at the ideological spectrum (in other words, the path in which the pendulum travels) as seen by most people. There's the Left, and the Right. A line in which most Democrats are on one side, and most Republicans are on the other, with a smattering of Moderates in the middle. This look compresses what I'm really talking about, namely, that there is another axis on which the pendulum can move. While "beliefs" are on the X-axis, "control" is on the Y-axis. The amount of power that a government has, the control that it has over the lives of it's citizens. We can all keep our "beliefs" and be as vehement and as passionate about them as we want. We would cease to be human if we didn't. It's the involvement of the government in those beliefs that I want to talk about.

An example. Let's take the issue of same sex marriages (since the other viable option, Abortion, deals with the liberties of another being, which is an entirely different set of arguments.) When dealing with homosexuality, we have peoples' beliefs, be they the prominent Christian beliefs that it's a sin, or the more secular, biological notion that it's normal, possibly a way of nature to control population growth. There's the belief that love, in whatever form, is right, and is much more desirable than hate, which is displayed by bigotry and crimes against gay people. Okay. Wherever you fall on the ethical axis on this subject, you have to look at the Y-axis. Namely, control over the issue by the government. Do we move to one side of the spectrum and outlaw all homosexual relationships, including marriage, because the government has the right to control any aspect of it's citizen's lives? Or do we allow relationships of any kind, believing that the government has no right at all to control any aspect of people's lives? This, of course, legalizes pedophilia, polygamy...etc.... Again, these are simply the extremes on the spectrum. And it's much more complicated that this.

Let's pause for a moment and put some labels on this. Visualize the x/y axis chart. Everyone has their own beliefs, their own ideals about how government should work. Generally, however (and we are applying stereotypes here, for sake of making things simple), Republicans (especially those that would align themselves with what used to be the Moral Majority or Christian Right) have two positions on the Y axis. For issues dealing with finance and material things, they can be graphed on the Y as wanting little control (let's put No control on the bottom, and Total control on the Top). But on issues of ethics, such as that mentioned above, they would rather have more control, thus most conservatives would vote against same-sex marriages on the basis of their X-axis beliefs (I wish I could draw what I'm seeing in my head on these graphs, it would help). Democrats (especially those we could label Liberal or Progressive), would have the opposite marks. Little control on ethical issues like Same sex marriage, but more regulation on the financial and material aspects of society (such as the Environment, for example). I can see it all in my head, stretching and angling on the graph like rubber bands.

The Libertarian graph look much different. While they may be on either side of the X axis (being socially conservative or liberal), the main difference is on the Y. Libertarians believe that, no matter what the issue, the Government should not intervene in the lives of its citizens. Therefore, they are on the bottom of the Y axis. This brings up the Libertarian Paradox, as I call it. Because, if the government does not have control over its citizens, then who does? The answer is a staunch belief in individual freedom and individual responsibility. In other words, it is up to each of us to be self-disciplining as to how we live our lives. Makes sense, doesn't it? Except it can't always work that way. We have seen in the past couple of years how the financial markets, without government regulation, has suffered at the hands of investors who have manipulated and cheated the system. They took advantage of no regulations and profited improperly because of it. Reality says that people do not have the ability to self-govern. The government has to step in where the people won't. (This is also oppositely true, if you take a look at the Arizona immigration issue. The people have to step in when the Government won't, but that's another blog.) Therefore Libertarianism only works when a self-governing principle is inserted when the government's control is removed. This is why most Libertarians come across as nutcases, because either they want anarchy so they can do what they want, or they wrestle with the paradox so much that they say opposite things one after another, and therefore cannot be depended upon. If you wish, you can take a look at a previous blog of mine, on legalizing drugs, for more examples of this:

So the answer to people having different opinions is this. We can disagree on our beliefs, and be as passionate about them as we want to be. It is up to us to discipline ourselves to live according to those beliefs. It's when we use the power of the government to control other peoples lives (especially when no other person's liberty or safety is involved) that we give a push to the pendulum, making it move further out. It's the Y axis we need to control, not the X. We have to separate "ethics" from "law." Bob Barr did this by voting against the Same Sex Marriage amendment to the Georgia Constitution. He realized that even though he disagreed with the idea of same sex marriage, he voted against the amendment because the government should not have the right to interfere in the personal lives of its citizens. He separated his beliefs from the Law. This separation is what the Constitution is based on, and it's what we have forgotten in our desire to place our beliefs on the lives of others. The government becomes a tool for secular humanism, or for Christian evangelicals. It should promote neither. Our relationship with other people, or with God, should be our own choice. The government should only step in when those actions interfere in other people's lives. The government is a protective power, not a proactive one. Thus the military should be given high priority, as well as the police and fire departments. But I'll not go into all of this, as that is another blog.

I haven't quite got it all worked out, as the Libertarian Paradox is something to be reckoned with. Libertarianism is a philosophy for an ideal society. We must strive for that ideal, while recognizing that reality must rely on a government that is less than perfect, as we are less than perfect. We should mirror the Federal Government after God Himself. God has the power to control every aspect of our lives. He could tell us what to eat, what to do, who to love, all according to His design. But He doesn't. He lets us make our own decisions, and we suffer consequences if they are the wrong ones. It doesn't mean that God is less powerful doing it that way, but rather, He chooses to be more a Clockmaker than a Micromanager. He realizes our individual sovereignty, as we are beings He created. After all, His kingdom is much stronger if His citizens voluntarily do as He commands than having simply robots. God wants people He can be proud of. Our government should do the same.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Pendulum, Yeats, and ObamaCare

The Pendulum Effect   

Oklahoma City has a interactive, educational museum, one much like Fernbank here in Atlanta.  In the Omniplex, there were machines with buttons to press, making holograms and activating wind tunnels and train whistles and boxes that emulated earthquakes.  There were endlessly running marbles on a track that seemed to change with each descent.  And high upon the ceiling was attached a pendulum, one that swung slowly around a circle, knocking over pins from time to time as the Earth moved around its orbit.  A grand clock in which a year was its circumference.  I never got to see it knock down a pin.  But the idea of the pendulum has forever stuck with me, and it has been reiterated over and over throughout my studies. 

The one most brought to mind is that of "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats.  To quote:

Turning and turning the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

These are more spirals than pendulums, but the idea is still the same.  As the motion of the swinging bar goes further and further away from center, the more erratic it becomes. Yeats proposed a 2000 year pendulum swing from Classicism to Christianity, and back. I would hope that it would resolve more like Hegel's Synthesis between two opposite extremes, but there are many realistic examples where it falls apart all together.  Sometimes after the extremities are reached, the center can no longer be reached, and the pendulum falls apart. But I get ahead of myself. 

Whatever do I mean with all this?  What brings us from the slowly moving pendulum that moves with the Earth to utter catastrophe?  Certainly I could exhume environmental theories until I was blue in the face (Avatar pun intended). And perhaps the philosophical backing of anarchism supports the ideas of global warming nutcases.  It is unclear what effect mankind has on the pendulum of the Earth.  More than likely, it cannot be anything good, for any force that pushes on the pendulum will make it move more toward the extreme, and knock down more pins.  Nothing good can come from this. 

It's in the political arena that we are currently seeing this effect most dramatically.  I didn't know at the time I was writing the first part of this, but the idea of the pendulum would be represented in the Republican Primary in Utah, where incumbent senator Bennett was booted out in favor of a more conservative member.  Surely, his votes on the financial bailouts..etc... had something to do with this, as well as the support of the Tea party for the more conservative candidates.  What we are seeing is the result of the pendulum swinging very far to the left with the election of Obama, Pelosi...etc... and then moving almost equally far to the right.  While this is a common occurrence from each era of politics, from Democrat to Republican and back, it seems that each push either further right or left swings equally back the other direction.  Carter begot Reagan/Bush, who begot Clinton, who begot Bush II, who begot Obama.  All this is normal in the world of politics. 

The problem with such a movement is that those things which are so protested against while one party is in power become matter of fact when the protesters become in charge.  Jon Stewart easily showed this over and over again on The Daily Show, when dealing with the procedures of the Senate trying to pass the Health Care bill. Or, more importantly, on the little talked about extention of the Patriot Act to allow current Democratic party elected officials the same powers that the Republicans had during Bush II 's administration.  The only difference is that, depending on the bias of the media, one supposed injustice is ranted on about, while the other is kept quiet. 

Thus it is that the pendulum swings in both directions, and equally for both sides of the ideological spectrum.  This is the most important aspect of examining the power of the government over the lives of its citizens.  And once that power is given, it is very rarely taken away.  Thus the power that the Republicans gave Bush during the 2000's is still being used (and expanded upon, see the Patriot Act measures) in the Obama administration.  Any authority the Dems give themselves (such as being able to access anyone's health records by way of those citizens being a part of Nationalized Health Care (various sources on the web, none from primary sources, however)) will be used to the same extent when the Republicans take back the governmental reigns.  It will happen. Eventually.  And when it does, the governments control over health care will reflect Republican social values, which will mean anyone who believes other than conservative Christian beliefs will find themselves on the cold side of the law.  (At this point, it's the rich and the successful that are being penalized). 

The moral of the pendulum is to not give yourself power that you don't want your ideological opposites to have later.  It simply polarizes everything, and pushes the pendulum farther out, making any action or decision more dangerous.  At some point, the whole thing will break down. 

The solution?  Well, I'm in favor of the Hegelian principle of a Synthesis between two opposites.  In other words, create something new out of the old arguments.  To me, this is where Libertarian beliefs come into play.  Don't ask me how that would actually work, because, honestly, I don't know.  We need to do something to slow the pendulum down. Deflate the power, pressure, and contain the chaos that will certainly come if we don't, much like the beast in Yeats' poem.