Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Gun Control Debate and the Definitions of Deranged

Several days before President Obama presented his Jan. 16 proposals on gun control, members of the NRA began writing to local newspapers nationwide to warn of an imminent series of executive orders that would bring armed agents of BATF (usually in tanks or APCs) blasting down the doors of gun owners to yank away their weapons.  The mere fact that so many were willing to believe the outer limits of Alex Jones fantasies, indicates that the real debate over gun control is not which assault weapons face an attempted ban, but how government authorities and citizens alike may choose to define who is too mentally disturbed to own a gun.

     I have owned guns in the past, and have many friends who are still members of NRA, and yes, some card-carrying NRA members actually know how to conduct rational arguments.  But a significant minority of members, amounting to a good quarter or third of the NRA base, now hold opinions resembling a toxic mix of Alex Jones, Ted Nugent, and Michael Savage.  They are the ones most adamant about owning multiple borderline weapons (some even claim rights to own RPGs and small missiles), yet they are the ones displaying irrational thought processes who would be most likely to be denied guns.

     This is a tougher problem than the mere name-calling act of declaring someone unloosed from Earth and off the reservation.  In some senses, the argument revisits one from 20 years ago regarding the Treasury Department's FinCen (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network), and the group of Libertarian/Randian/Extropian folks who were most adamant about its probing abilities to track international financial fraud. Back in the 1990s, several readers told Wired and other publications that the type of people that complained the most about FinCen were precisely the people the readers wanted to see monitored.  And when some indignant Extropians talked of building their own islands in the oceans to be independent from national oversight, the same readers suggested that these were precisely the type of people Interpol should put on their "Most Wanted" list.

     It's not that there isn't a power-elite we must constantly be vigilant in opposing.  It's not that a totally weaponless society wouldn't indeed be a perfect patsy for such a power-elite.  It's just that people need to remember the Christian Parenti warning that large, scary power elites operate as often from asinine and irrational principles as from deep evil will.  The 20-point Leninist plan of Obama to destroy America simply does not exist.  The black helicopters of the United Nations similarly are not real.

     But who is to say which beliefs are fantasies?  This is one reason why the definition of schizophrenia/paranoia by broad-based majority consensus is indeed important, no matter what R.D. Laing says.  It matters what a majority of Americans think of one individual's or one subgroup's mental health.  If you are proposing specific and fact-based points for keeping weapons in citizens' hands, such points can be argued back and forth, though the NRA's money power may sway rational argument considerably.   But if you preface your arguments by an assumption that a secret takeover of government is days away, you're probably too deranged to own a gun.

     One reason the clamor from this minority wing of the NRA is so scary, is that many in this NRA subgroup probably realize at some deep level that Obama was not looking for this fight - he was dragging his feet until Newtown.  Rather, this is a demand coming from a broad-based constituency that probably comprises a majority of Americans.  And that's what outrages those NRA members.  Some of the NRA rhetoric of late (not all NRA rhetoric, but what we might call the Ted Nugent wing) suggests that if a majority of U.S. citizens have gotten too namby-pamby to tolerate the right to own assault weapons, well then, it's time for those assault-weapon owners to show their support for liberty and our Constitutional rights by taking out some of those citizens.  Meanwhile, the majority of citizens that believe otherwise will look upon such talk, and such possible action, as prima facie evidence that these particular NRA members are too mentally disturbed to own a gun.

    My own take on this growing and very deadly debate is that the NRA as an institution has gotten so crazed, it must engage in some serious internal purges to be taken seriously.  And if a certain number of members continue to use this language, they must be judged as clearly mentally disturbed.  It is precisely the citizen that says, "You'll only take away my AK-47 when you peel my cold dead fingers from its trigger," that deserves to have all weapons taken away -- whether that represents an unpleasant extension of government power or not.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Grumpiest Musician of Them All

Over the course of the holidays, I had occasion to read David Byrne's How Music Works and Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace.  I was ready to compare and contrast their methods of confronting what Robert Hughes (referring to impressionism) called "the shock of the new."  Since Young was so adamant about improving digital music representation with preserved analog content - and since he's a curmudgeon by nature - I figured he would qualify as grumpiest.  But the more I thought about it, the more I placed Byrne and Young on a spectrum defined at its extreme grumpy end by .... Pete Seeger.

Wait, you'll say.  Pete Seeger?  Perhaps the kindest, most altruistic man in folk music?  Hey, I agree with those sentiments, and admire virtually everything Seeger has done in his long and rich life.  But what I'm examining here is the reaction to new forms of music that shake up the existing order.  And here's how I place David, Neil, and Pete on the crabby continuum:

1. The Buddhist 'It's All Good' Path of Acceptance: Byrne takes this point of view in much of How Music Works, a book which instantly caught my fancy.   Byrne admits that lossy audio compression leads to "craptastic" sound; that sampling of the sound of instruments and using that sample to replace traditional instruments leads to a certain form of inauthenticity; that digitization of sound itself leads to something missing between the 1's and 0's; that the disappearance of the physical artifact (CD, LP) leads to a cheapening of musical experience; that detaching musical sounds from the performance environment disembodies music.  But at the same time, Byrne said that all these moments of supposed inauthenticity lead to a new kind of authenticity that can have merit in its own right (say, an all-electronic, sampled performance by DangerMau5 or Girl Talk).  Byrne suggests that an Alan Lomax that purposely tries to snare a rough-cut, scratchy performance of a Missisippi Delta blues artist, or a band like Pavement or Guided by Voices that tries to create a deliberately lo-fi sound, does not thereby gain some level of authenticity.  Any musical form can be legitimate or authentic according to the rules imposed by the listener.  In short, it's all good.

2. The Admit-the-New, Preserve-the-Old Path to Keep the Best of Both Worlds: Neil Young freely admits that he can be annoying at times, particularly when he demonstrates again and again how digital representations of sound are inferior without some preservation of an analog slope.  In Waging Heavy Peace, Young freely admits to being a curmudgeon on many music subjects - not just his endless promotion of the PureTone/Pono music sampling technology, but also in his stubborn insistence that the music "album" as traditionally conceived remains viable, and that it helps to have the physical artifact, preferably an LP.  He does not, however, reject much of what is new, as should be clear from his regular collaborations with the likes of Devo and Pearl Jam.  Young also said he is not out to upend the technology giants.  When someone suggested his PureTone was waging war on Apple's iTunes, he said he is "waging heavy peace" - thus, the book's title is not a referent to his antiwar activities, but a description of his interactions with the world of digital music.  As long as the elderly are given their due as the sages of the music world, Young is willing to admit the whippersnappers.

3. The Bar-the-New and Block-That-Kick Approach to New Ideas: I've been surprised in recent years to discover that Pete Seeger had no regrets about unplugging Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965.  He has made some good points about sound quality at Newport being poor, but Seeger puts the comprehension of lyrics on such a pedestal, sometimes he fails to understand that distortion is the point, that feedback and noise are legitimate contributors to the musical experience.  In recent interviews, Seeger seems to mellow to the prospects of electronic instruments, but how would he ever understand John Cage?  How would he understand improvisational noise?  Indeed, how would he understand Neil Young's use of vocoders in Trans, or Young's use of feedback loops in Weld?

Byrne may have stumbled upon the problem with Seeger, which puts the revered folkie on a par with those musical fuddie-duddies who run screaming from free-jazz or loud-rock concerts screaming "That's not music, that's noise!"  Remember, Seeger always harbored equal parts musical traditionalist, kumbaya togetherness, and old-line Marxist thought.  One of the enemies of Byrne's book is German Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno, who rejected most forms of popular music as akin to religion in being the opiate of the masses.  Byrne actually seems to be the most egalitarian of anyone, in rejecting any distinction between the Irish pub and the symphony hall.  But Byrne said that Adorno is one of many philosophers who create a false "people's history" by saying that pop music is meant to dull and de-politicize one.  Perhaps so, Byrne said, but can we say this automatically happens every time a Madonna arises?  How then can we account for the popularity of Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone,' for example?

The rigidity of traditional Marxism, Byrne concludes, leads to a stultified form of art that leads inexorably to Madam Mao's operas of the cultural revolution.  Maybe it took a Reagan era to make Madonna and Paula Abdul and Duran Duran popular, he says, but not because the ruling class consciously made it so.  Dadaism and art punk may have a dilettante aspect, but they are not thereby petit bourgeois.  In fact, simply by revolting against the existing order, the new forms bring about an instance of the revolutionary.  The playwright Alfred Jarry and the rock band Pere Ubu understood this.  Not so Theodor Adorno and Pete Seeger, both of whom may need to grow a new pair of ears.  Then again, so do many, many people (including many music lovers) in our society.