Friday, March 11, 2011

Link: Kinnon TV: Why do we allow toxic leaders

Bill Kinnon puts some things better than I could ever manage to do.

Hero worship will always be with us and toxic leaders stay in power because, well, they're heroes to somebody. A hero is someone who by dint of accomplishment, charisma, and power attains glory. The hero is valuable to us because in exchange for service and loyalty the hero promises explicitly or tacitly to share some of his glory with us. Now we can tell ourselves, "Oh, I would never fall for that." We do, all the time. I've fallen for the sales pitch in numerous ways.

The thing is the appeal of the hero and his/her glory works because we need it. We tell ourselves otherwise but usually all this means is we think other people have picked heroes who aren't glorious enough. A fan of Ayn Rand will admire her and look down on those who admire communists. The same hero worship process for Rand is at work in the worship of Mao or, let's just say it, Jesus. Let's consider that Richard Dawkins has been busy declaring religion to be positively harmful and superstition is bad and we'd all be better off and there'd be less war without any relgion. None of that is provably true.

What is arguably provable is that even an atheist like Richard Dawkins promotes a form of hero worship. How? Simple, he minted the term "brights". "Atheist" is accurate but seems too negative. Dawkins came up with "bright" as a way for atheists to self-identify in a self-affirming way. You see, there it is. A hero becomes a hero by dint of great accomplishment, renown, and by making an offer of loyalty and allegiance to his cause in exchange for sharing in his glory. Even atheists do this while detesting that religious people do this with their gods. Christopher Hitchens is perfectly willing to invoke a moral connection between himself as a dissident and a dissident like Solzhenitsyn or maybe even a Bonhoeffer. When unbelievers are willing to assimilate people of faith into their lexicon of heroes (even if these men and women of faith don't pass muster with American conservative evangelicals) they show that the impulse to hero worship is irresistable even among those who claim they are too sophisticated to be duped by old-fashioned heroism.

So whether we ally ourselves to healthy leadership or toxic leadership the dynamic of hero worship and its process is fairly steady. As a Christian, of course, I must continually remind myself that my hero is Yahweh, revealed as Father, Son and Spirit. There are other heroes and scripture urges us to consider the saints of the land to be heroes worth emulating. That many toxic leaders abuse this does not mean that 1) we should never admire heroes or still less 2) that we won't have them anyway.

One of the things that may help, that I try to keep in mind is that Jesus said of teachers "By their fruit you will know them." This doesn't seem to refer to how many seats they can fill in a stadium, though wisdom will be justified by her children, I suppose. It seems to refer to the character of the teacher himself and of his disciples. There may well be many more evangelists and "apostles" than there are teachers who make disciples. We need evangelists and those who continue the work of the apostles but shepherds are also needed. I have found it useful to keep in mind an observation made by one of my pastors, that the measure of a shepherd is how he deals with the sheep he can't get anything out of. The difference between a shepherd and a hired hand is that the shepherd will care even for the sheep that isn't useful to him.

That was an epiphany for me when I heard it because, frankly, I feel like I have seen a few pastors who are shepherds in title but hired hands in heart or, at least (to avoid speaking too confidently) in their actions. We can be convinced of the rightness of our motives but God looks upon our heart, the heart that is a secret even from ourselves. I hope I have no illusions about whether or not I am a good man or a good Christian, neither is true but my hope is that Christ's goodness is more than sufficient.

Even if we speak about the dangers of toxic leaders let's not forget that the capacity to be a toxic leader or follower resides within us. A friend of mine recently joked that it is easy to be a dissident in Seattle. If you don't know what I mean just roll with me on this one. When you're in a town as left/liberal as Seattle being a dissident requires nothing of you, not even actually being a dissident. It's merely enough to strike the pose and words of a dissident to convince yourself you're not the same kind of consumeristic materialist as the rest of the allegedly benighted middle America idiots in red states. Well, that's not the same thing as being an actual dissident in the Soviet Union, is it" A dissident who isn't imperiled by dissidence isn't dissenting so much as conforming through a different means.

We need to be cautious, careful, and considerate. Not for nothing does the scripture tell us to beware lest we ourselves should fail. I could write more about toxic leaders but I believe it's enough to say that our thirst for glory that we can share with someone who has glory, however we define it, is why we must continually renounce the things we secretly and not-so-secretly take glory in our hope for and remind ourselves that Jesus is better than those, better than them, better than these. Whether our hero is toxic or not won't matter if our hero isn't Christ, will it? A toxic fan can corrupt even a righteous hero if the hero gets wind of their hero worship.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

link: NY Times book review: A Philosophy of Genocide's Roots

Came across this set of links thanks to Mockingbird. The critique of the proposal that genocide is based on nature rather than nature is a salient one, that proposing that we are all inclined to reduce people to essential immutable essence is simply wrong both on historical and conceptual grounds. In religious terms a concept like conversion, let alone sanctification, works on the assumption that it both is possible and positively verifiable that humans can and do change. It is also possible for someone to be considered less than human, then more than human, then less than human based on criteria selected which define what truly human means.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Link: The First Post: Dull musicians have helped kill the music press,news-comment,news-politics,johnny-dee-dull-musicians-have-helped-kill-nme-and-the-music-press

Perhaps people don't like reading about music any more because musicians themselves are a bit dull? For every Lady Gaga there are thousands of Justin Biebers (above) who, despite making music that people like, don't really have anything of note to communicate beyond their hair product preferences. Within NME's rock 'n' roll world that ratio's even higher (just substitute drugs for hair products).

The thing is, musicians have always been a bit dull. It's just that, in the past, journalists were given more of a license to make things up, to prod them a bit harder until they said something properly revealing. Now they wouldn't dare - through fear of upsetting Artist A so much that they refuse to attend their awards ceremony.

In the days before the internet, journalists could make a new band's music sound far more interesting than it actually was (an arrangement that worked well for both parties). Now everyone can head straight to MySpace, YouTube or Hype Machine and find out the grim reality for themselves.

I don't know if the music press has been dying at all but it has been changing and I would agree that as mainstream publications integrate arts and culture reporting into their roster of regular sections you won't be as beholden to getting Rolling Stone or a specialty magazine if there are local papers covering the actually local music scene.

I do agree that musicians as a whole can be very boring people. Music is not necessarily boring but it can be challenging to know how to write about it and in what way. This does not mean, contrary to the overused axiom, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. That's just silly elitist snobbery. It's possible and beneficial to write about music. Pop stars and rock stars have every incentive to keep music as mysterious as possible so the average person doesn't have to wonder how mathematical all music is to one degree or another.

The best and most useful observation in this piece is that in earlier days music journalists were capable of making a band sound far more interesting than they actually were. When Musician magazine devoted an article to the band Jesus Jones twenty years ago the article was (take my word for it) vastly more interesting than anything the band actually did themselves. As for the song "Right Here, Right Now" it was, once I heard it, a fairly simple execution of a I, II, IV progression with obnoxiously breathy and weak singing. Then there were the ridiculous lyrics that spouted "Bob Dylan didn't have this to sing about." Earth to Jesus Jones, Bob Dylan was not dead at the time and disavowed being a social protest or political singer decades earlier. Bob Dylan didn't "didn't have this to sing about" but Bob Dylan is still selling albums. When last did Jesus Jones release an album again? Some twenty years later the Jesus Jones song may still be a favorite for some people but as a sentiment it's a more badly dated version of something Paul Simon expressed on Graceland years earlier--these are the days of miracles and wonders so don't cry, baby, don't cry ...

But Musician's coverage of Jesus Jones, as I recall, was interesting reading. They really made the band sound like something you might even want to listen to. After reading an interesting and well-written article about the band Jesus Jones I actually heard their stuff on the radio and wondered, "Is that it!? But that's some of the most pedestrian self-congratulatory pop I've heard in my life?" Bear with me, I guess I have to admit I could be an insufferable music snob twenty years ago, too. If you adore the music of Jesus Jones I'm not trying to be a jerk by saying they weren't even a third as good as the coverage Musician magazine gave them twenty years ago.

In fact even to write this blog entry I had to go Google the song title and rummage through some Youtube videos just to figure out what band wrote the song "Right Here, Right Now". I could only remember not liking the song and not remember who wrote it. So on the one hand if boring musicians are killing the music press maybe the music press has forgotten how good it was at promoting middling (not to say bad) bands since the dawn of the modern music press.

On the other hand, coming at all this from the perspective of a hobbyist composer and a former journalism student most people who write about music aren't really writing about the music. They are, instead, writing about what the music evokes for them or for others. It's one thing to write about the emotional content of a song as though that were writing about music and another thing entirely for Frank Zappa to comment that too many jazz players are content to play II-V-I progressions and bebop themselves into a frenzy and that there are, then, people who actually like to LISTEN to that stuff but he couldn't hold it against some people that they're easy to please. As Zappa said about Prince, his not liking anything Prince was doing didn't mean he begrudged the man making a living doing his thing.

A lot of music coverage that isn't classical music never gets to much analysis. We find it easier to talk about "what" the music evokes rather than what the music actually does. The music theory can reveal the how and why of a song that works. I spent time years ago expounding this in "Counterpoint According to Stevie Wonder" but I will take a detour here into another favorite of mine, Bob Dylan. Being able to talk about the theoretical and formal building blocks of a piece of music does not demystify it or rob it of it's musical value. If you know how Mahalia Jackson changed "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" from a theoretical standpoint that doesn't make her rendition of the song any less awe-inspiring. But permit me a return to Dylan.

Take Bob Dylan's "Most of the Time". There's a song about regret and arguing with one's self about the failure of a long-lost relationship. That's the emotional core of the song but we can also discuss the song as about six minutes of tonic and subdominant alternations with a couple of function substitutions. Now for someone dead set on the idea that music has to be about feeling and emotional meaning there's no interest in dissecting what is supposed to be mysterious.

Except that the ancient Greeks and medieval philosophy could see music as a form of applied mathematics and science. That oscillation between the tonic and dominant chords (or F major and C major, if you will) creates a musically static harmonic structure. The reason that static harmonic oscillation makes the song so effective is because Dylan's lyrics reflect ambivalence, even a double-mindedness that tries to accentuate the idea that Dylan's speaker is over the woman.

But the static chords reveal an element the lyrics avoid affirming except through the words "Most of the time" by using harmonic inertia and ambivalence in the weak, recursive harmony to reveal that even though "most of the time, she ain't on my mind. I wouldn't know her if I saw her, she's that far behind." THIS moment where he's actually singing the song is NOT one of those times. That's what makes the song effective, a combination of carefully chosen words with musical textures and substance creates a song that perfectly expresses ambivalence revealing itself in a curiously defiant form of regret where the speaker realizes that most of the time he's sold himself on an idea he knows isn't really true. Ergo the song.

If dull musicians have helped kill the music press the music press itself doesn't always do itself any favors. As the jazz critic and author Eric Nisenson pointed out, most music criticism but especially music criticism about popular styles is written not by actual music students or music historians but by English lit and writing majors. Now I ultimately couldn't buy the idea that jazz was being murdered by the neoclassical jazz impulse and of course I wouldn't since I come at the whole subject as someone interested in "classical composition".

But I agree with Nisenson's polemical observation that most people writing about music are not writing about it from the perspective of people who analyze music as music, still less from the perspective of someone who performs, composes or arranges music. If people who don't know how to talk about music with musicians as a craft attempt to write about music that may not hurt their career for quite some time ... but then again, perhaps what the internet has demonstrated is that if a person wants to write about music without actually having a command of music as a language, a craft or even (horrors) a kind of science then the internet has plenty of people blogging about music for free.

It's not just as simple as that the Justin Biebers of the world can be written about without any reference to things beyond his personality or persona (whatever those are), it's that the internet makes it easier for bands and artists to brand themselves (for better and worse) and, as the article points out, this eliminates the mediating role that music journalism used to play. A band or artist can often write as eloquently about themselves as a journalist at least while none of them are famous enough to get much coverage. So maybe dull musicians have helped to kill the music press but even the most interesting ones may not help as much as we might think. The most interesting music may be written by the most interesting people but it isn't always the case. Sometimes the men and women who have written things that have changed the course of an art form didn't live lives in such a way that we have any clear idea what made their lives even as interesting as ours.