1960s: Romanticism and Decline

After years of the right-wing version of the history, there is a tendency to think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a period of decadence and decline. But thankfully in recent years we have pulled back from the precipice. Or we think of the 60s from a post 1980s and 90s capitalist triumphalist perspective: as colorful and quixotic kitsch denude of any ethical or political import.

Last night I spent a few hours listening to Ginsberg’s Howl, watching Joe Crocker concerts on YouTube and whatnot and I challenge anyone to listen to Nina Simone’s 1969 Harlem Festival (Central Park, New York) performance of “Ain’t Got No…I’ve Got Life” and tell me we’re not a civilization that’s put an additional forty solid years of decline under out belt. To hear a song so simply constructed — it’s just two lists of commonplace items — but so evocative and watch that face like a statue but with the pathos of the entire human condition! Compared to our contemporary world of rampant materialism, status-seeking, vanity, cynicism, cleverness, conformity, vapid luxury, triviality and selflessness (by which I don’t mean generosity), the 60s and 70s look like a golden age of humanist assertion.

I would love to read a systematic comparison of the various romanticist periods of history.

On the other hand, people — at least people my age — tend to think of the period as still historically close, relevant, but when I was watching Joe Crocker last night, it occurred to me that the performances that I was watching are as far removed from us today as the Second World War was when I was a kid. 1968 was forty years ago. When I was ten, the Second World War had ended forty years ago as well and I thought of that as ancient history. The greatest generation are about to disappear, but notice that Bill Clinton, a baby boomer, is a bumbling old greyhair who’s had a stroke for crissake.

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Monkey Contributors

The purpose of switching to a group blog format was to upgrade from my existing two to five posts per week to the sort of high-volume blog that would reward regular refreshing the browser. But alas K. and J. are weak oarsmen. So I’m thinking of a strategy more like that of Mad Magazine:

April 2008 Mad Magazine, monkey editorialship

I would hardly be only in the company of Mad. The New Yorker obviously has had similar thoughts:

23 December 2002 New Yorker, the Fiction Issue, chimps on typewriters on the cover

And The New Yorker cover shows that the editorial staff at that magazine is actually thinking through the practicalities of the program. On the other hand, The New Yorker is just involved in a raw numbers game. Mad is trying a strategy of mixing it up.

Back when I worked in IT I actually used to fret that my employer would fire me in favor of a monkey. I’m sure that a chimp could have been at least twice as productive as me when it came to pulling new cables through the suspended ceiling. Perhaps the same would be true of blogging.

David Cook

Okay, okay … dawg … I’ve become obsessed with American Idol.

I know, it’s an embarrassing shame and I tried to resist, just like I tried to resist Sex and the City, but the siren song of popular culture proved too powerful. S. spent a few weekdays with her parents who have been fans for a number of seasons and she came back transformed. The damn show is two nights a week and they draw it out like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and there are way too many chirpy and inspirational types breathlessly disgorging their fame-whore dreams to Ryan Seacrest. But it’s on and our apartment is small.

But that wouldn’t be enough to turn me into the crazy fanatic that I have become. For that, what was required was contestant David Cook (American Idol | Wikipedia). At numerous points in my life I have been aware that some local talent — a fellow college student playing around the venues of the college town, that ensemble band playing at the dark, crumbling and sticky performance spaces — was more than just an amateur like the rest, but something totally amazing. I think that Mr. Cook is such an act and somewhere in Tulsa is a cadre of small time fans lamenting that they are about to lose their intimate treasure to mass popularity.

His command of the physical and emotional repertoire of rock and roll is as developed as any presence I have ever seen. He knows how to make out with the mic, he knows the seductive tough guy expressions and he knows all the dramatic gestures designed to leave you with the impression that rock and roll is an elemental force and the performer some sort of conjurer (hence the concert special effect of the pillar of fire). Taking his queues, I remember his performances as bigger than they were (wasn’t the wind blowing in the performance of “Eleanor Rigby“? Did he pull some Neo maneuver?).

The outstanding thing about Mr. Cook is that he’s doing covers and even then his arrangements are lifted from someone else — his version of “Day Tripper” is lifted from White Snake. His arrangement of “Billie Jean” is Chris Cornell’s. But almost without exception, he does a way better version of the song than either the original or the cover he is using. As Lionel Richie said of Mr. Cook’s performance of “Hello” — a creepy song rendered acceptable — “David just played it as if it was his song from the beginning — there was no Lionel Richie involved.”

I have been going through an anti-Beetles phase for some years now — too much of the sock-hop sound that preceded them, too trite of subject matter, guess I’m a Stones man — but in Mr. Cook’s versions of “Day Tripper” and especially “Eleanor Rigby” instead of a whining barbershop quartet, I hear the darkness of the lyrics of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but sung in a style that maps it into the field of such songs by Depeche Mode or Nine Inch Nails or stuff from the dark side of the singer-song-writer tradition, songs about foundering and folly.

I have always thought that Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was one of the best dance songs ever recorded, but I have also had to overlook the sleazy lyrics. In Michael Jackson’s hands it’s a song about a man trying to avoid the responsibility of parenthood, an effect magnified by the video. In Jackson’s version “the kid is not my son” is a lie told to a paternity inquest.

In Mr. Cook’s version (I have bought the complete studio version from iTunes) the drama of the love affair comes to the fore and the issue of paternity becomes a subordinate part of the narrative. It’s a song about the irresistibility of desire and that old cliché, the femme fatal. The narrator wakes to his senses from the intoxication of sexuality too late, with his future having receded from his grasp. The pregnancy and the child aren’t shirked responsibility, so much as the crushing consequences of fate and the inescapable demands of animality and the body. “The kid is not my son” becomes the primal psychological denial of a man who knows the truth (“My baby cried / his eyes were like mine”) contending with his powerlessness before the forces of his own nature.

Mr. Cook emphasized the ambiguity of having been designated “the one” under vastly different circumstances and plays with the timeline. The second line of the song he asks “What do you mean ‘I am the one?'” The first time it is disbelief at having been singled out by someone desirable beyond his attainability. The second time around it means he is the father of Billie Jean’s child. Possibilities open, possibilities are foreclosed. And the song plays with the chronology, one time leading the listener to believe that they met at the dance, had a brief affair and now she has caught up to him with the baby in tow. In a second telling is seems more as if she seduces him on the dance floor and there confronts him that she is no stranger, but someone with whom he has a past. In the face of seduction and desire and our wildest emotions, how tenuous is our grasp on reality? The absurdity of the song’s admonition to “Always think twice” is underscored by Rashomon, confusion and the loss of a linear, fixed point of reference in any sort of timeline.

Al this was always in the song, but in Michael Jackson’s version it is lost amidst the dance beat. By making it a ballad and adding his cataclysmic voice to it, Mr. Cook has exposed the previously obscured aspects of the song.

Anyway, here’s his Idol oeuvre:

Happy Together (The Turtles)
All Right Now (Free)
Hello (Lionel Richie)
Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)
Day Tripper (The Beatles)
Billie Jean (Michael Jackson)
Little Sparrow (Dolly Parton)
Innocent (Our Lady Peace)
Always Be My Baby (Mariah Carey)
The Music of the Night (Andrew Lloyd Webber)

It’s not all great. He botches the performance of “Innocent,” but the studio version has become a favorite of mine. And nothing is as good as his rendition of “Billie Jean.” S. and I have investigated some of his pre-Idol stuff and it’s pretty pedestrian. Too much typical harlequin romance songs. Hopefully after his run on American Idol he has the good sense to find his way to a decent producer (may I suggest Trent Reznor) and avoid signing a contract to do a Ford commercial.

This week is going to be Neal Diamond. If only they were taking requests. Actually, nevermind, I wouldn’t know where to start.

Ryan Seacrest’s little trick during week eight of initially sending Mr. Cook to the bottom three only to correct himself later and swap Mr. Cook into the safe group almost killed me. It’s driving me so crazy that I may have to text “vote” to whatever number they throw up on the screen. I just hope they don’t start dispensing commands to run off a cliff because with my case of the screaming meemies I just might do that too.

Searching for Something Secondary on Cioran

When Romanian studies professor Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston died in 2005 (“Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston,” 8 April 2005), she left a lot of literature unfinished, among it not one, but two books on E.M. Cioran: one a critical biography, the other a personal memoir of their friendship. As I had been anticipating at least the biography for some time when I heard of her death, I was crestfallen.

It turns out that what she had completed was sufficiently far along that a book will come of it. Searching for Cioran will be released in Fall 2008 according to publisher Indiana State University Press, January 2009 according to Amazon.com. The book lists her husband as the editor so I presume that he gathered together what there was and did his best to make a book of it. I also imagine that it will be diptych in that it will be both the critical biography and memoir published together. In such a thin field, even an uncompleted work will be a real addition.

The Dean Scream Gank of 2008

I really don’t think I can handle the U.S. political scene and the 2008 election anymore. The right can still get away with their “liberal media” routine, despite it now being quite apparent that the media lies at the ready, waiting to gank any liberal with an even vaguely populist message at the first sign of any traction. Four years ago in what was one of the most amazing, mendacious, mean-spirited attacks on a politician that I have witnessed, Howard Dean was completely eliminated from the running in a single day and night of misfortune following the media pile-on over the Dean scream. This season it fully seems that Barack Obama has been served the same treatment.

The annoying thing is that this is working — at least on me. Maybe I’m too plugged in, whereas most voters are barely noticing, or maybe I’m not steady enough of nerve to weather what is a passing storm. I was in favor of Hillary Clinton throughout most of the primary, but after a few weeks of vague racism, typical Clintonian petty lying and unhinged desperation — doesn’t Bill Clinton really seem like a stroke victim at this point? — as well as a few positives from Barack Obama, I was convinced to switch to advocacy of the inevitable.

But after the whole Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the elitism gaff, Barack Obama seems like a pretty indefensible candidate to me. I mean, if someone took issue with Reverend Wright what would you say? Senator Obama was unfamiliar with these positions? That would be a convenient lie. That Reverend Wright’s opinions aren’t really that important? Do you plan to extend the same curtsey to John McCain regarding his religious wacko supporters? That Senator Obama is a closet atheist and just goes to church out of political necessity? Digging the hole deeper. That Reverend Wright’s points aren’t really that offensive? Let me know how that works out for you. That a politician shouldn’t have to apologize for the opinion of everyone they’ve ever come into contact with? There’s only so much mileage to be had here. Guilt by association is a lament because it has so much cred with common sense-type reasoning. And Senator Obama had been a member of Reverend Wright’s church for how long? Twenty years?

I think this is all stupid on a competitive basis. Despite the fact that John McCain has his own covenant of wacky preachers (Pat “we deserved September 11th” Robertson, John “the Catholic church is a whore” Hagee), has claimed spurious religious affiliation and in the form of national greatness conservatism has his own brand of condescension toward the decadent whims of the American citizenry, he’s getting a free pass from the media. If the media does decide to make an issue of anything about Senator McCain, it will undoubtedly skip over his war mongering and his avowed ignorance of economics to focus on the weakest case against him, that he is short and old., criticisms that will probably redound to further the liberal elitism case.

It pisses me off and I want to know when the DNC is going to dispatch Dean and Carville to the CNN Situation Room to empurple the face of Wolf Blitzer and to the Meet The Press studio to throw Tim Russert down an MSNBC fire escape stair well.

Maureen Dowd Marinated in Bitterness

Since there is no one more hateable in U.S. media than Maureen Dowd, I pass on the following screed (Kathy G., “My Maureen Dowd Story,” The G Spot, 18 April 2008):

But there’s another problem with the opening sentence of the Dowd column. “I’m not bitter.” Oh Maureen — who the hell do you think you’re kidding? The woman positively soaks in bitterness. Marinates in it. It oozes out of her pen and pours into just about every damn word she writes. Her bitterness has utterly corroded her soul. It’s turned her into a twisted freak whose chief pleasure in life seems lie in vicious, barking-mad attacks on the only people capable of ending our long national nightmare — the Democrats. Seriously, if there is any other single person in the media who’s been a more powerful enabler of Republican high crimes and misdemeanors than Modo, I don’t know who it is.

It would be one thing to be relentlessly critical of the Democrats — I am and they deserve every bit of abuse they get — if it seemed as if it were in the service of some principle. But the amazing thing about Maureen Dowd is that she doesn’t seem to have anything approaching a positive agenda or even the most remote interest in issues of policy. Her column is just a wasteland of the rote application of the worst of yesterday’s discarded pop psychology to the politician de jour. Her entire oeuvre consists of little more than pulling the wings off of political flies.

When will a shakeup at the New York Times Op-Ed page deliver us from this twice weekly phantasm? Probably never. I wonder at the wisdom of associating myself with fellow leftists every time I see that Maureen Dowd’s column is the most e-mailed of the day — as it is twice a week. It just might provoke a Christopher Hitchens-like bolt for the door.

Courtesy of Kevin Drum (“Who’s Not Bitter,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 18 April 2008).

Nixon and the Conservative Ascendancy

With the completion of his forthcoming Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Rick Perlstein (personal | blog) has really outdone himself. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus was a mere 671 pages long. Nixonland will be in tomb-territory at just short of 900 and it sounds like it is approaching a grand theory of contemporary American politics level of analysis.

Not being a member of the advanced copy, galley proof gravy train, I am relying on Ross Douthat’s very interesting review in the current Atlantic (“E Pluribus Nixon,” vol. 301, no. 4, May 2008, pp.83-86). He has a lot to say but his last few column inches sum up are the chewiest morsels:

And yet one doesn’t have to excuse Nixon’s many sins to wonder whether his mix of ruthlessness, self-interest and low cunning might have been preferable to some of the alternatives on offer. … It was a political moment when the old order could no longer govern, and the new order wasn’t ready. The kids who screamed for Goldwater and McGovern would grow up to be responsible Reaganites and Clintonians, but back then they had only idealism, not experience, and Nixonland is an 800-page testament to the dangers of idealism run amok.

In this climate, the voters didn’t choose Nixon over some neoconservative or neoliberal FDR; no such figure was available. They chose Nixon over an exhausted establishment on the one hand — nobody seems more hapless in Nixonland that figures like Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller — and the fantasy politics of left and right on the other. They chose Nixon over the abyss.

Perlstein sometimes seems to suggest that Nixon was the abyss, and that by choosing him we vanished into it. But this misunderstands contemporary America, and it misunderstands Dick Nixon. A cynic in an age of zeal, a politician without principle at a moment that valued ideological purity above all, he was too small a man to threaten the republic. His corruptions were too petty; his schemes too penny-ante; and his spirit too cowardly, too self-interested, too venal to make him truly dangerous. And he was a bridge, thank God, to better times. Could America have done better? Perhaps. But on the evidence of Nixonland, we could have done far worse as well.

In a certain sense I imagine this as of a piece with Sean Wilentz’s also forthcoming The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, which incidentally picks up where Mr. Perlstein’s story leaves off. Both books seem important analyses of the most outstanding fact of the present political era: the ascendancy of the right. But are there really any structural forces at play here? Nixon’s victory owes as much to contingency as to any deep forces of the American psyche. Consider how differently events could have played out had Sirhan Sirhan’s aim been a little off. Nixon would have disappeared into history as merely a McCarthyite coat-tail rider, Vice President and two-time Republican also-ran. Reagan killed Carter in the electoral college, but he only won 50.7 percent of the popular vote. If Paul Volcker had been less bold as Federal Reserve Chairman and the Sea Stallion been a more reliable helicopter, perhaps Carter would have been a two-term president.

This passage may be too sweeping to be a useful analysis. Perhaps I post it more for reason of appreciating its tone than its incisiveness. Ringing speeches by American politicians aside, I think that often the best thing about modern liberalism is that it minimizes the damage of human perfidy rather than serving as a forum for the realization of “our potential.” And that is about the best for which we can practically hope.

My inclination is to lump those who see Nixon and his coconspirators as a catastrophe as the other side of the same coin with the fascist sympathizers of the 1930s a lá Carl Schmitt and that strain of neoconservatism that persists today — the Straussian strain — who worry that democracy isn’t a system of governance up to the challenges or that it will fare poorly in the competition of international politics against stronger state types. The robustness and fault-tolerance of liberalism is consistently underestimated. A couple of teapot totalitarians, domestic or international, will hardly spell the end for our way of life. As a political-philosophical conservative and a liberal, I don’t have exalted hopes for democracy, but neither do I see it as really imperiled by either its mediocrity or its excesses.

But then I think again and wonder if I have castigated too quickly, and it is confidence, not fret that is misplaced. A wayward politician every few election cycles is one thing, but an assault sustained over a prolonged period may be something else. The thing that makes U.S. liberalism robust is that politics is founded in the fundamental life of the people and in the United States there is a long tradition — stretching back to our British cultural antecedents — amenable to such a system of government. But such characteristics aren’t our only ones. A militarism, paranoia, religious absolutism and that old saw whose penetrating insight has been dulled from having become a cliché, the sense of manifest destiny are as much a part of the American character as the democratic ideal and each can serve as a basis for an attack on the latter. Under the relentless pressures of the military-industrial complex and its attendant right-wing tendencies, has the U.S. character has started to distort? Perhaps the democratic ideal was something that could only flourish under the conditions of splendid isolation (the name for the British version of the same; out name, “divine providence,” obscures the geopolitical reality in a haze of latter-day theology). I believe that the remove of the United States from the corrupting necessities of realpolitik was a part of the original formulation of the notion of “the city on the hill.” Could it be that the democratic ideal is simply not something that can survive into the age of the ICBM and jet aircraft? In this sense, perhaps what makes Nixon unique is his excessive focus on foreign policy, to such a detriment to domestic issues, that his domestic program became but a withered appendage to foreign policy ends, hardly the place to invest precious principles.