Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What's Left?

There is something disparagingly rotten about the present American condition.  Everyone seems to know this.  The last couple of weeks in which the US government was placed on gardening leave while Congress squabbled over a budget and the Congressional Republicans tried to include the anti-democratic roll-back of a law they didn't like managed to take center stage.  Meanwhile, that old bug bear, the negotiated debt ceiling made its reappearance and we were warned of the threat of potential economic catastrophe on a day to day basis.  For the last couple of weeks, politics, government and the failure of the politically class to actually govern was hammered home.  This was a crisis seemingly manufactured by the hard-right, however, it was allowed to occur through decades of acquiescence by the American left to an extreme right wing, market economy driven agenda.

We exist in a society that is divided, anti-scientific, self-involved, frivolous and otherwise disengaged. Nowhere is this decay more apparent than in the contortions of the American left.  While the American right has proven itself notorious for its takeover by radical revolutionaries who seek to ruthlessly transform society, the left has shown itself idyll, complacent and smug.  There exist a set of underlying problems, both in theory and practice, with the American left that undermine the stated present and historic beliefs of the left and prevent genuine dialogue with those that favor a policy of public good across the spectrum.  This essay is an exploration of these tendencies.

One of the underlying problems that continues to undermine American liberalism is its ongoing, almost demur, obedience to neoliberal market assumptions.  These manifest themselves in both a tendency to kowtow to political authority and an emphasis on consumer activism.  Effectively, the emphasis on markets has resulted in, to borrow Evgeny Morozov’s terminology, a deeply 'solutionist' mindset that has further undermined political dialogue - this outside of the very obvious obstructionism of the American right.  This has been furthered undermined by persistent belief in material progress that has become inexplicably tied to the belief in markets.

This tendency is further undermined by the ascendency of the utopian cult of Meliorism within the American lefts purview.  This often time quasi-religious (according to the English political philosopher John Gray) belief in persistent material progress undermines the ability of the American left to genuinely enact meaningful policy while further reaffirming the cult of the individual.  The notion that things are always socially ‘progressing’ or that a narrative of perpetual marginal improvement drives history is entwined with the ‘solutionist’ mindset.  While this belief is unjustifiable and results in political dis-engagement in the form of perpetual mindless sloganeering through social media platforms.  Thus we have a form of unquestioning “reposting’ from anointed channels often at the expense of genuine political thought. 

Rather than question the explicit and self-destructive tribalism within American politics, people have only dug deeper into those tribal distinctions.  This tendency, has resulted in a failure of the American left to thoroughly question the excesses the American Democratic party, which is, at present, actively waging a war against independent reportage, 'whistle blowing' and the very constitution.  It has also driven a dangerous cult of personality around individual charismatic politicians that has precluded adequate questioning of the political agendas to be advanced.  As national consensus appears to begin to arrive around many of the more contentious social issues, such as gay marriage, immigration reform and the like, it becomes increasingly odd to watch the triumphalism of members of the American left who appropriate these victories, that belong more to the individual groups historically discriminated against, as their own.  This largely by virtue of their “Facebook-activism” rather than from actual diligent social campaigning around said issues.

Finally, the left appears to be afflicted by the same anti-scientific bias that blights the American right.  This tendency to cast aside scientific claims, specifically those that do not adhere to individual beliefs in alternative medicine, perceptions of purity, or which undermine the utopian belief system that underpins notions of ‘progress’ are made to give way to a set pseudo-scientific, quasi-spiritual justifications often elevated in the minds of the proponents to that of science.  That this is precisely the same process engaged in by religious fundamentalists of the right – specifically discarding of scientific evidence in favor of higher “moral” beliefs - does not seem to enter into consideration.  This tendency runs deep through American public life and remains as dangerous as it is tragic.

In identifying these issues, the goal is to force members of the American left to examine their positions and convictions in the hope of driving both a wider public debate in how to conduct politics but also to beg the question, what we actually wish our society to resemble.  Mine is a generation, the Millennial, that have been brought up to collectively believe that we are each individually special, gifted and likely to rise above the fray and correct the problems of the world.  Instead, we have actively continued the politics of previous generations and simultaneously engaged in the same wasteful, unsustainable behaviors.  We have also pursued these aims with a sense of self-righteousness that remains unjustified. While numerous pressures and hardships abound – and people should take pride in having stood up to the pressures of student-loan hardships, a miserable economy, dealing with the anti-tax/pro individual (though not collective) service gorging of the baby boom generation, etc. – this does not excuse us from the callings of civic obligation. 

Only in questioning how we go about engaging with politics can we truly engage.  The radical political right – specifically the Tea Party, which is effectively engaging in an open fantasy of restoration of libertarian utopian past that never was - does the left no favors in its obstructionism.  That said, many conservatives hold highly sensible beliefs are fully open to engagement yet are partially prevented from doing so by the assumptions of the American left.  Much can be learned from classical conservatives, such as Michael Oakeshott and Edmund Burke as well as from conservative peers who, for the moment, appear to be alerted to the dangers implicit in many of the above-mentioned assumptions.

The American left is peculiar by international standards in that it is not really of the historic left.  It has never really been for large-scale upheavals of the existing order, regardless of what the collective rhetoric around the radicalism of the 60s states.  Instead, American Leftism has largely been a highly statist, largely partisan beast.  Marx, the traditional touchstone of many international leftist movements never had a great deal of traction in the United States.  Much of this likely has to do with the outright persecution of Marxists during the early days of the Cold War and the ongoing threat (largely rhetorical) of the Soviet Union.  Some of the Presidential Administrations viewed as most liberal, such as that of John F. Kennedy were firmly anti-communist, seeing escalations of the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis (fall-out from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion) almost bringing us to the brink of international thermonuclear annihilation.  

It may also be that leftism within the US has done little to directly dissent from free-market capitalism, for which Marxism is anathema.  Marx of course, has very real limitations: his prescriptive ideology, adherence to a form of social Darwinism and presumed knowledge of "social evolution" place his ideology soundly in the category of religious thinking, however, as an observer and critic of capitalism he is inimitable.  Because of the failure of the American left to take onboard Marx's critique of capitalism, (with the exception of certain academic circles that responded by obsessive naval gazing at the arcana of Marxist dialectics) much of what was held sacred by left-wing counter-culture, particularly around environmentalism and the aesthetics, has been monetized and marketed.  Thus, the activism that remains is built around consumer-choice.  That this is largely a false activism goes without saying.

This co-option has also seen the failure of the left to address issues of income inequality and declining social services.  The last Democratic presidential candidate to truly define themselves with wanting to improve the plight of the poor was Hubert Humphrey, a reviled figure who lost the 1968 election to Nixon and is viewed by many retrospectively as some sort of out-of-touch dinosaur.  Jimmy Carter, for example, ran on a platform of economic conservatism (though he did eventually prove to be America's least imperialist president, at least when it came to international affairs), while Clinton, who surprisingly initially ran on a platform of anti-globalization, was rapidly co-opted by free-markers and joined with the Newt Gingrich's Republicans in actively gutting the welfare state.  Clinton's roll in orchestrating many of these reforms, which have been fiercely destructive to many lower income and particularly minority families has been well documented, particularly in Jason DeParle's American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare.  This has resulted in shocking income inequality, the decline of social cohesion and the undermining of civil society as a whole  Income inequality is growing so rapidly in the United States that a recent Unicef Study on global income inequality predicted that, if current trends continue, the United States will have similar income inequality to the current most inequitable country, the DR Congo, inside of 30 years.

As the left seems unwilling to deal head on with inequity, to reform financial markets to actively protect people from shocks or to address austerity policies in any meaningful way, this has left with an agenda largely constituted by "solutionist" policy agendas that pay lip service to the idea of environmental improvements and equity while simultaneously reaffirming the same neoliberal economic polices that are actively driving inequality.  As the economist Paul Krugman points out almost weekly in his New York Times column, the stimulus implemented at the start of the 2008 financial crisis was insufficient and we should be actively pursuing a policy of full employment.  Instead we have implemented a series of financial reforms that have deregulated as much as they have regulated, such that it is questionable that even the Volcker Rule, which would once again require that financial institutions receiving FDIC insurance not engage in high-risk investment and instead limit their activities to standard commercial banking, seems unlikely to ever come into force.  Never mind that all this rule would do is to let financial institutions know that they are not guaranteed public support if they want to run a casino.

'Solutionism' comes in the form of believing scientific, or more commonly, technological solutions will solve many of our problems.  By relying on silicon valley to solve our social problems, many of which are pressing and require, active engaged public debate, we instead rely on quick fixes that not only fail to deal with the underling problems but also rob us of the ability to have the necessary debate.  Many of the solutions proposed to the financial crisis have taken the form of 'solutionsim'.  Rather than have a larger debate about what we value societally and where we want to direct resources, we sought quick fixes to short-term budgetary problems and largely failed to regulate in accordance of what we would determine to be of societal value.  Austerity policy is one form of short term 'solutionism'.  Rather than determine where emphasis should be placed, instead we are seeing across the board cuts that effectively damage the ability of government to actually govern and to provide basic services for those most in need. 

Austerity, however, remains one of the biggest problems we are facing and is further driving the income inequality that is disrupting our society.  The anti-union bias that many on the left seem to carry is indicative of just how difficult it will be address these issues and just how deep neoliberal ideology runs through the American Left.  Everyone in theory believes in the notion of an honest days pay for an honest days work, however, when it comes to actually fighting for this ideal, and organized labor is really the only game in town equipped to demand this, the American left is largely missing from the table.  Union busting laws and increased austerity, most often targeted towards welfare recipients, have received  limited protest and only the attempt to cut SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - an acronym for the food stamp program) benefits as part of a the last Farm Bill, a policy so callous that it sounds the subject of a Dickens novel, that have any serious questions been asked.

Meanwhile, we are told, we have been told that we need to hold faith in Obama.  Never mind that the administration has embroiled us in an unnecessary conflict in Libya that is now driving that country into civil war, while escalating drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere.  This has also included an attempt to commit us headlong in the active civil war in Syria, before a gaff by Secretary of State John Kerry led to a last minute demilitarization.  At the same time, the administration has done everything it can to limit transparency, increased NSA surveillance of its own citizens, pursued journalists and whistleblowers left and right using such draconian policies as the Espionage Act and generally been the most secretive and repressive administration since that of Nixon.  While we have seen some policy improvements, notably a health care bill that remains untested when it comes to actually achieving its goal of reducing costs and some necessary investment in domestic infrastructure (particularly around transit) none of this is really enough.  There is a serious lack of transparency, and the financial industry has been given undue ability, by the administration, to determine what rules they would like to play by, thus failing to adequately protect American consumers and failing to take preventative measures that would avoid further historically unparalleled bail-outs of the financial services industry.  They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  By that notion, the American Left's faith in this administrations ability to transform itself should be put forward as Exhibit A in its insanity defense.

Then there is the anti-science bias that appears to eat away at both political parties across the political spectrum.  While the left does seem to be (mercifully) on board with climate science, it seems to fail to grasp a lot of the logical outcomes of this.  While paying lip service to dealing with climate, the Obama administration seems hellbent on pursuing Keystone XL, which renowned climate scientist James Hanson (formerly of NASA) has noted repeatedly represents such a large economic investment in non-renewable energy that it would largely render any climate legislation null.  Further, the preferred suburban settlement patterns, general NIMBY-ism when it comes to denser nearby development and use of lower emission (or hybrid) vehicles rather than transit by many do almost nothing to actually address this issue and instead simply slightly reduce or relocate carbon emissions.

Then there is the matter of willful obstruction when it comes to public health interventions that might actually benefit the working poor, based on anti-scientific hysteria.  The controversy, incredibly heated public vitriol against, and eventual defeat of a plan to introduce water fluoridation in my home town of Portland, Oregon is a definitive example of this.  Never mind that water fluoride is exceptionally safe and efficacious once correct dosing for a particular municipal water supply is determined.  The debates that ranged around this subject indicated that, despite claims to the contrary many people on the left (a) have no idea how to read a scientific survey, (b) have no idea how to select a reliable scientific source, (c) have little understanding of how science is actually conducted and (d) instead rely on emotional response around a "purity" taboo.  The sheer volume of studies cited by critics of fluoride, for which it was clear that they had never read the studies or willfully misunderstood them was terrifying.  Many studies that were pointed to purporting to prove that fluoridation was unsafe were either based on doses 20-30 times higher what would be added to Portland's water supply, showed stronger correlation elsewhere, were heavily redacted to mask other findings, or in many cases, said the exact opposite of what their proponents were claiming of them.  Fluoride was actively defeated by many people firmly of the left, proving time and again that they were as actively contemptuous of science as the creationists of the right when the scientific facts do not fit their particular agenda.

For those that remain engaged in providing services to the American indigent, the revolutionary ideology of the old left hardly seems relevant.  Indeed, it has been the right which has become a truly revolutionary movement, willfully disrupting the very nature of civil society in order to realize economic development "potentials" often at the cost of the working poor.  Meanwhile, European Social Democracy relies on notions of social security and overall avoidance of socio/economic disruption.  As the late historian Tony Judt pointed out in Ill Fares the Land, this was more the purview of classical conservatism than of the left itself.  In our effort to provide effective social services, perhaps we should be looking to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who had a strong interest in limited revolution and systems that protected people from social shocks than we should revolutionaries with prescriptive ideologies like Marx.  Similarly, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (who many have retrospectively declared a 'liberal') also held a remarkably 'statist' view.  While Oakeshott believed that the answers to most problems reside in tradition, he was particularly fond of a cooking metaphor: what good is a recipe without a pre-existing cultural knowledge of the process of 'cooking', this places him closer to Keynes than many on the left who have bought into the neoliberalism.  After all, both Oakeshott and Burke spoke extensively about our shared responsibility to one another, hinting strongly at the need for the state to maintain institutions to care for our poorest.

The American left remains in only lightly better standing than the American neo-right.  While the right has become a truly revolutionary force, smitten with the (frankly dystopian) visions of Ayn Rand and set upon revolutionizing society by destroying government, civil society and the right, never once acknowledging the individual entitlements and subsidies through mortgage tax credits and the rest that many of the Tea Party's staunchest organizers are the recipients of, the left dithers in cult of personality believing that the Obama administration will somehow rise, phoenix-like, and implement some kind of as of yet unspecified liberal agenda.  There is a word for both sides, it is "delusional".  Until we insist on genuine accountability, protect our whistleblowers, and transform our political dialogue such that we insist upon equity and effective public services, the situation will only continue to deteriorate, particularly for our most needy.  This is a shame.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Michael Jackson was a Cultural Imperialist

Michael Jackson was a cultural imperialist.  No, really!  This idea occurred to me while reading a recent post by my friend over at Africa in DC which came as shortly after a lengthy debate I incidentally initiated over Facebook.  This has got me thinking a lot about the nature of art, culture and what people listen to, particularly in the age of wildly proliferated communications technology.  Music obviously means a lot to people, however most people do not put a lot of thought into the music that they listen to.

The issue raised by my friend over at Africa in DC is that there is a lack of diversity in what people listen to here in DC and what shoes they go to, particularly when it comes to African music. Listeners are segregated.  Contemporary African Pop music features a small, largely African ex-patriot audience, while older African genres, like the afro-beat pioneered by the late Fela Kuti manage a healthy white audience through DJ shows and the like.  A lot of this appears to be come down to a type of consensus within peoples listening habits established through media outlets like NPR and Pitchfork Media which often drive exposure, canonize certain acts that fit the aesthetics of both outlets and ultimately determine cultural preferences.  I agree with my friends assessment to some degree here, but find three additional points of interest: (a) pop music is in itself a form of cultural imperialism, (b) what is canonized is rarely "serious music"and (c) increased access to information technologies is creating a global monoculture that is narrowing rather than widening listeners' musical palates.

To begin with, there is absolutely nothing morally abhorrent about liking pop music. I like pop music and as a record collector, I own quite a bit of it. Pop songs can speak to us and move us sometimes more readily in ways that more serious art does not mostly because it works largely on the subconscious.  It's easy and it's pleasant - by definition it largely does not challenge the way more serious art does - hence: pop. Where pop music runs into problems is when it is exported internationally and begins to change existing cultures.  In some cases, as with Thai Molam music, which saw the blending of traditional rural Thai folk music idioms with the soul and rock and roll records brought over by US GIs during the Vietnam War, this led to the creation of interesting new hybrid forms.  A lot of these forms are interesting because they were downright weird and often didn't quite work.  The more formulaic Molam became, arguably the less interesting.

Often times though, the export of Western popular music results in replacement of existing ethnic musical forms.  A lot of this process started int he 80s when, Western record companies, looking to capitalize on overseas (and thus larger) markets for their super acts started pushing Michael Jackson records and the like down the rest of the world's throat.  Now, there is nothing wrong with Michael Jackson's music (his personal life, being another matter) however, many of the places that Thriller and the rest were exported and heavily marketed had their own vibrant musical traditions and ideas.
The ascendance of Hip-Hop of course further changed everything by further driving interest away from the instrumental, rhythmic, harmonic and melodic parts of the music and placing the emphasis increasingly on lyrics.  This trend seems to have begun with 60s singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan but with hip-hop, this became the case with African American musical forms as well.  No longer did anyone have to write an actual tune, now all that was necessary was a hook and a beat.

In the end, this process seems to be actively impoverishing a lot of contemporary African music.  While hybrid styles like Hip-life claim to blend the musical aesthetics of highlife music with hip-hop, the outcomes are, for all extensive purposes, indistinguishable from contemporary Western Top 40s radio hits.  While this strengthens the point made on the Africa in DC blog that it is bizarre there isn't a bigger audience for contemporary African music from white people with an interest in Africa (especially as the music in question is hardly radically different - in fact it's pretty close to the Western pop music they may already be listening to) it also represents music that is, ironically extremely un-African. The African music tradition has always been reliant on polyrhythm and intense rhythmic complexity. Much of this is rhythmic complexity is culturally inherent, as anthropologist John Miller Chernoff argues in his book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility.  As James Gleick further elaborates in his book on information theory The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, a lot of this rhythmic complexity was linguistically present in the tonal languages spoken in central Africa and carried to drums as a means of long distance communication. Thus, in much of Africa it is innate to communication.  This polyrhythmic sensibility was later exported to the West (through forced relocation of Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas via the slave trade) and makes up the basis for a lot of latin as well as jazz music.

Thus to hear contemporary African pop music built around stagnant 4/4 rhythms in order to more fully line-up with the aesthetic of hip-hop indicates not only a serious cultural loss, but also the clear emphasis of the domination of American cultural exports.  Just as Hollywood has pushed its conventions upon other countries film industries, American popular music has undermined a lot of what made traditional popular music forms culturally relevant.  It drives a sort of internationalized, sanitized lowest common denominator consumer culture.  The exception to this rule appears to be the Bollywood Film music coming out of India and the Tamil Film music of Sri Lanka.  Sure it borrows from Western musical traditions, but then again, Bollywood has always borrowed from a lot of different sources and remains incredibly creative.  (Legendary Bollywood composer, R.D. Burman, appears to have have long absorbed not only the entirety of the Western and Indian musical traditions, but also far Eastern, Latin and African at the same time that the Beatles were just starting to mess around with sitars. Burman isn't the only one.  His closest Western contemporary is probably someone like the ever inventive, ever open, Ennio Morricone.)

That said, this leads to a lot of questions about who is the gatekeeper for international music for Western culture.  This appear to have largely fallen into the hands of National Public Radio (NPR) and the "indie" music website Pitchfork Media.  (A nuanced critique of both sources can be found here and here.)  What both overwhelmingly do, in their gatekeeper rolls is to create an extremely lazy, incurious white mono-culture that predominates a lot of people’s thinking, particularly when it comes to other cultures artistic outputs. What both elect to anoint as canonical are usually a lot of old safe oldies or gimmicky newsworthy acts (i.e. K'naan) while ignoring a great deal of what people actually listen to within the cultures being studied. This mono culture pretends to be reasonable but never really allows its own assumptions be challenged. It also feeds back what is "commercially viable" in the West to those cultures, further driving an internationalized mono culture.

So, given that a lot of pop music may serve as a form of cultural imperialism, the NPR/Pitchfork Media consensus does nothing to acknowledge this and instead pushes itself as a gold standard of cross cultural awareness, despite having an extremely narrow focus and positively dripping an non-acknowledged Orientalism. This Orientalism though is careful not to go too far. A little exotica is fine, too much of “the other” makes people feel uncomfortable.  Orientalism is not in and of itself a bad thing.  I think in engaging with other cultures, it is almost impossible not to project onto or fetishize "the other" in some way.  That said, some musicians are able to play on this notion of Orientalism and use it to their advantage.  The guitarist Sir Richard Bishop (a favorite of this blog) takes on a lot of the negative Orientalist stereotypes and appropriates these as virtues, actively incorporating them into his own work.  Richard Bishop, however is a serious artist with a strong interest in music who has been ignored (due to the marginal nature of his work) by NPR while Pitchfork has tended to condescend in their reviews of his work, speaking of his "impressive amount of skill" as though this were somehow a bad thing.  It has also, similarly condescended in reviews of Jazz musicians, a genre that NPR has instead elected to treat as some sort of venerated museum piece, something to be wheeled out and "recognized" as important rather than as an actual living genre full of still-living practitioners that could be, you know, actually listened to.  To its credit, NPR occasionally takes risks promoting more difficult music, but always in back alleys of its website and only after that work has received wider cultural acclaim.

This is especially telling when contrasted with the Americana derived roots/ folk rock that both NPR and Pitchfork have been in lockstep as being the work that speaks to our times. The gentle, guileless work of Wilco or Mumford & Sons or the retro rehashing of The Arcade Fire and Phoenix.  None of this work is terrible, it is all perfectly 'pleasant'.  It is more that none of it is particularly novel, most of it is quite disposable popular music which, because of lyrical stance, is now canonized as new classics that will stand the test of time.  NPR and Pitchfork readers see themselves as being part of two very different sub-strata yet they seem to be largely in lock-step when it comes to "recognizing" work. NPR, the more conservative middle of the road source perhaps a bit slower on the uptake.  So we have a situation in which arguably the two most active, determinant and influential sources are both affirming a particular style of (limited) music as being great art (which arguably it isn't: instead it's pop) and feeding this back internationally by limiting channels of exposure.  Thus, the selections made by these sources become self fulfilling prophecies and we have variations on the same works.  Add to this the odd endorsement of international music and hip-hop (in order to demonstrate that both sources are "cultured" and lather, rinse, repeat.

These ideas are then spread online through the endless cycle of posting and reposting on social networking sites, twitter, internet radio (which effectively creates echo chambers by broadcasting 'similar' works to listeners to help them discover 'new' music) taste and review aggregation and the like.  No one ever really stops to question the wisdom or agendas of those making decisions about what is popular, but what is remarkable that, despite the incredible variety of music available and one-click through the internet, everyone seems to listen to and watch the same things.  Critics lament the lack of a shared cultural background as a result of internet stratification, but this could not be further from the truth.  Instead, there has been a remarkable shift of the non-threatening, canonized classics and semi-pleasant pop music through repeated self-reification, with limited questioning.  This tendency is now becoming internationalized.

So yes, this does result in a de facto segregation of work, however it is ironic that much of this work not being listened to should be accessible to people across the spectrum of “pop music listeners” because feedback mechanisms have already prevented it from being genuinely challenging, culturally specific or different. It is as much a failure of telecommunications technology to actual broaden people’s scopes as much as anything else.

Or, we can also just blame Michael Jackson, because this tendency seems to have started with him.  Go on, he's an easy scape goat.