A mid-April consideration on the political state of things

A bland title perhaps but there’s nothing else that seems to sum things up in a deft sense for me, so I won’t bother trying. Still, perhaps you can consider this as me seeing the end of Lent as realizing I inadvertantly gave up political posting for the season — though for good reason, simply because it kept my head from spinning each and every day.

It is important of course to reiterate the key point always missed in partisanship — the basic continuity of the system means things are neither as radical an improvement nor a disaster than one would expect. You wouldn’t know it from any amount of happenstance and rambling that’s out there these days, though. From the well-documented moronic theatrics of Glenn Beck to the mock-surprise from people who should know better — hi there, Glenn Greenwald — that electing Obama didn’t suddenly mean bunnies and kittens hopping around everywhere, if you added up everything from mass media points of view to endless blog rants to tendentious columns to whatever else and believed all of it, the republic is simultaneously collapsing completely and in complete lock-step with the previous presidency without change. Nice trick if you can manage it but I prefer to take slightly longer and calmer views.

It’s one reason why this post isn’t going to be that long in comparison to many similar ones I did last year. Yet what has ultimately struck me about the past few months is the sheer amount of what has happened, legislative decisions, court rulings, executive orders. Not simply on the national level alone, of course — thus the events in Iowa and Vermont the other week, which together probably are going to herald the eventual adoption of gay marriage on a wider scale, for instance (and a very good thing that will be — I strongly suspect this to be the straw that breaks the back of the religious right in its 20th century hangover sense).

In this mixture of actions I see little to draw a definitive bead on beyond the sense of new consensuses that are starting to slowly, carefully emerge. Even those are vague to me, though, and the danger of overcategorization — as I’ve long sensed as a problem in the realm of music — is just as relevant if not more so in the world of the sociopolitical. More important, therefore, to focus closely on matters at hand that one can have a direct say in.

Therefore taking a page out of my own book from last year’s posts — namely the need to remember the local as much as the national when it comes to politics — my next posts on politics over the upcoming weeks will look at the upcoming California special election addressing the variety of measures designed to finally do something about the ultimately ruinous financial situation of the state in recent years. Meantime I’ll be chiming in as per usual on various posts at Balloon Juice as amusing or idiotic or important national events of note occur.

So I’ll just end here to say that I’m going to be terribly amused by the cranks and fools that are going to pretend anything’s going to happen with their little protests on April 15th beyond openly-displayed self-loathing and paranoia plus a lot of purchase of tea. If I were an active investor, I’d buy stocks in Lipton.

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“The Politics are Not Obvious” by David Lester

"The Politics Are Not Obvious"

“The politics are not obvious” is a painting I did that a banjo player bought after seeing it displayed in 2004, when Mecca Normal played a barber shop in Olympia and a bookshop in Seattle during a west coast tour. The man later sent me a cassette of his banjo playing. He recorded just this one copy to send to me. This was art. This was political.

Further information about David Lester and Mecca Normal can be found in this post.

Introducing a guest poster — David Lester of Mecca Normal

Quite honestly I never thought I would get to the stage where there’d be such a thing as a guest poster on my blog, but hey!

David Lester is one of the two members of Mecca Normal, a wonderful band from Canada currently celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. Jean Smith, the band’s other member, was one of the first people I ever interviewed formally as a music writer back in 1993, shortly before a great show she and David did on the UCI campus.

Mecca Normal’s anniversary tour is not simply one of music straight up — in keeping with their long-stated political and philosophical beliefs it’s much more akin to Ian Mackaye’s spoken-word tour earlier this year emphasizing involvement and awareness in general. To quote Jean from their tour site:

I wasn’t expecting to be impacted by the economic downturn when I was laid off from my retail job at an eco-friendly clothing store. The company decided to close the much-loved, quaint, creaky-old-floorboard store to concentrate on their wholesale and online business. As an almost fifty-year-old (single, debt-free) musician, novelist and painter, I am perhaps better equipped to deal with variations on the theme of employment and income, better than people who felt they had security. Rather than look for a new part time job, I’m hitting the road with Mecca Normal to present “How Art & Music Can Change the World” — an art exhibit, lecture and performance event in university and high school classrooms, bookstores, art galleries and music venues.

In cities where we don’t have a confirmed lecture yet, we want to connect with journalists, bloggers and radio people to inspire readers and listeners towards cultural activism — to fortify a new optimism that cultural activists can impact progressive social change.

David wrote me about providing occasional posts and artwork about a month back, and I admit to being quite initially surprised that my own small blog would be of interest to him. But I’m quite honored and flattered to be able to host some of his work. I’d certainly say David takes more of an active approach politically than I do in the end — I tend towards the discursive and reflective, for better or for worse. As a musician I quite admire, and as someone who like myself is careful not to let himself simply be defined just by music, he is someone who can and does show the importance of continual activity to best contribute to a wider world.

David’s contributions here will appear as he’d like to provide them! I’ll be putting up the first one shortly.

So there was this speech tonight

And a rebuttal and all that. But there’s no need to talk about that right this second, really.

Still, I am starting to feel a little more ready to poke my nose back into a little more regular political reflection, at least openly through the blog. I’ve had a couple of posts back in January but most everything since then has been on the level of general comments over at Balloon Juice and a couple of other spots, or private conversations. That’s all I felt I had to contribute at the time, really — a further stepping away from the obsessive tracking and all that, partially so I could concentrate on work, partially because I felt I just needed a little space in my head on the subject.

I’m pretty sure I muttered something about this before, but if not — I think part of the reason why I was so pleased with the election in November was the sense that while there will always be surprises and potential mistakes, I got the sense that Obama was deliberative rather than impulsive, an important thing. It’s not that impulse is always bad, nor deliberateness always good — still, I’d rather have someone deliberative in the role of president, whether as tone-setter or as decision-maker.

It is of course important to note that so much of what we ‘see’ in the role of the person in the presidency is a very mere perception, shaped in a mass media setting (and Twitter and YouTube and all that ARE mass media, they just aren’t always given the term that is deserved). For me to claim that Obama is deliberate is false; rather, my sense is that he is, a combination of distanced observation and recognition of a cultivated image. In combination with a variety of stances and beliefs that resonated with me far beyond anything McCain and crew could offer, little surprise that I was content enough with his victory. The proof would ultimately be in the pudding.

And so far? Well there’s all sorts of metaphors and comparisons being offered out there, positive and negative and whatever, but personally I think just all boils down to this for me — he still seems incredibly deliberate after a month in the job, and he plays for a very long game. This thrills some, frightens others (the paranoid of course assume he’s out to destroy the country, but the paranoid always assume someone’s out to destroy the country, and I’m tired of their willful disconnection — not so much from reality as from hope, since they run solely on fear).

What playing for the long game means for me is this, though — thinking about overall goals, testing out ideas, refining processes, acknowledging mistakes, getting called out by both friends and enemies as a way to see those mistakes and to fix them, sometimes getting overtaken by events, sometimes being totally able to dictate them. Furthermore, it’s one thing to play a long game just to win for oneself — it’s another play to win to benefit all, even if one doesn’t reap the full benefits.

Now, some people, I’ve noticed, take the measure of these kind of comments and assume that somehow this means a certain worshipful faith in Obama, like he is an instant solution just by existing. Nonsense, of course — I can’t speak for others, but I’m not into kowtowing. I just want the dude to do the job he was elected to do, and to speak about it frankly and clearly. Generalities are fine enough in certain contexts, specifics will be needed at other points, and realizing that of course it’s not just him but all those who work for him, I expect those people to provide those specifics too.

And so the speech and the rebuttal? A deliberate president faced off against a dullard governor. Is it any wonder that right now — allowing for the fact that perfection is impossible — I’m pretty content?

Roll on, whatever is next. Not ‘bring it on’ — roll on. It will be dealt with deliberately, and we’ll be the better for it.

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First week done and I am…amused

Highly, highly amused. And pleased. But not in the least surprised.

I muttered in a Facebook update a week back that I rather wished that the whole ceremonial part of the Inauguration could be over and done with just so the guy could get to work and, you know, be president. Obviously this is kvetching on my part, people like a grand entertainment and all. Still, much the same way as it’s always been with me given the course of Barack Obama’s striking career these past few years, I felt less like it was some huge massive historical moment for the nation — even though of course it was — than just a feeling that he looked plenty suited for the role, and things would probably go from there.

As we know now, they have. The blizzard of high profile executive orders coming out has captured a lot of attention right off the bat, covering as they did a substantial number of subjects. Meantime, there’s been the various coffee klatches and meetings and more regarding the economy, Joe Biden’s off to Europe doing the ceremonial rounds, George Mitchell’s off to the Middle East to do the harder stuff, Pentagon’s getting visited tomorrow, the cabinet secretaries are all settling in…it’s good stuff, if one wants to see people actually getting busy with the business of government, and I do. Hey, they are the ultimate public servants, after all.

But I’ve been a bit surprised at others’ surprise at it all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not seeing myself as some sort of figured-it-all-out oracle on the subject. Also, anybody complaining on the right about Obama’s executive actions seems to have forgotten who lost the election and all — hey, now you know how a lot of people felt over the past eight years, so my sympathy level is kinda low. So that’s not surprising, that’s just ‘eh, what are you going do’ type stuff. We could be in a stellar economic and geopolitical situation right now and they’d still be complaining, really.

No, what caught me a bit off guard were friends and acquaintances on the left (or the more thoughtful right) surprised that he issued so many orders and so forth that were in line with what he said he would do during the campaign. It got to the point where I had to say I was surprised at their surprise, and when I was called on that a bit — after all, I am a self-declared arch cynic about the process of power and its self-perpetuation — I reflected on that. Quite obviously I have a certain bias to my preferred candidate of the two on offer in November winning, and I didn’t want to assume that I was seeing things strictly through a rose-colored afterglow.

I had to conclude that, quite simply, I had already taken it as read that he would pretty much hit the ground running and do things straight out of the gate, as I hoped he would do. And so it’s proven. One week is still one week, but hey, he ran for the job, got it, and now he’s getting to work. A certain naivete on my part for making that assumption, which easily could not have been the case? I guess, but intellectually I really didn’t have any reason to assume otherwise — my surprise would have been if nothing had happened, or nothing much.

So I’m pleased rather than surprised, because to my mind there was no reason to be surprised if he did all this, and looked to doing more. And as for being amused? Well it’s already the talk of any number of websites, but the various zings, some understated and a couple more upfront, that have been directed by Obama and his crew to various political opponents have all been done with a mixture of deftness and icily precise aim. Both have had as their biggest target one of the biggest of all, a certain R. Limbaugh, who has somehow gotten it into his head that it’s 1993 again and he represents a new and fresh voice opposing all that doesn’t match with his vision of the world instead of, well, representing being a boring crank complaining into his cups. (Admittedly he’s attracted plenty of fellow cranks, but they seem to be drinking even worse rotgut.)

Now personally I’d always figured that the smartest thing to do with him would be to ignore him, under the presumption that engaging with the type of glory hound like that merely makes him all the more flattered. Instead, there’s been a taking-the-bull-by-the-horns approach on the part of the White House, done with this calculation in mind: “Hey, if the GOP wants to be represented by this guy while Obama stands for the Democrats, I don’t think it’s much of a contest.”

The end result has been talked about already in a few spots — try this link from the Moderate Voice for a good enough summary. Obama’s absolutely killer line to GOP opponents in today’s Congressional meetings about inevitable points of fundamental difference — “I understand that and I will watch you on FOX News and feel bad about myself” — is the kind of thing you almost figure only exists in novels and film scripts, and yet there it is. It’s a perfect dare that’s also a shutdown, because how can you react against it if your move has already been anticipated — and dismissed — by your opponent?

And for Rush? Well, more stories like this one, please — and I have a feeling they will increase. To quote from the Moderate Voice story:

…he’s getting lots of ink, Internet attention and broadcast time. But he’s unlikely to be the GOP’s ticket to regaining the support of the public — unless the party wants to write off many independent voters, Democrats who don’t like the Democratic party’s far left, and moderate Republicans who don’t like the way Limbaugh has demonized Republicans who aren’t conservative enough for him. A Rushuplican party would not do well as a thoughtful, bigger umbrella Republican party.

Obama knows this. Rush doesn’t. The contrast is illustrative (and the latter’s followers will need it outlined and explained in great detail in order for them to understand it, I suspect, but let that pass…).

But in the end, one week is one week. One month, one season, one year…we’ll all know more then. So far, though, one hell of a start. Best as ever to keep a line in mind from friend Mackro today: “…there’s less difference between Obama, Clinton, GWB, Bush I, Reagan than most Americans, especially Obama fans, realize.” Quite true, both positively and negatively, I think. The trick will be to see how much or how little difference in the end.

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The Village Voice Pazz and Jop 2008 poll is up and…

…to my considerable surprise, part of my commentary with my (non-)ballot was quoted at length. Very kind of them, especially since, as noted, I chose not to submit any ballot at all — you can find my full comment here.

It was neat to see similar sentiments expressed, though, and without trying to say there’s been a specifically universal alteration, Charles Aaron’s quote just before mine got right to the point:

Considering 2008’s daily fuckery (the election, the economy, the Internet’s continued destruction of journalism as a viable career option), I’ve never felt less inclined to make some head-up-ass editorial case that pop music plays a pivotal role in the development of modern society.

Blunt but apt and accurate. I don’t think music’s importance as something cultural — as something commonly human, at base — has changed in the grand scheme of things, but I do think the massive sea change in how it’s listened to, created, shared, talked about and more has taken the wind out of the idea that Aaron identifies. On a day when Idolator’s been having well-deserved fun with expressions of inherited ideas from the 1960s about music and relevance — check out this post and this one, and I’ve a couple of things to say in the comments section of the latter — the inherited idea that Aaron notes, comforting as it is, deserves some harsh scrutiny too. This is obliquely addressed in the first Idolator post I linked, not about music critics trying to advance grand unified theories of pop music, culture and society but about MTV’s attempt to advance their own, so to quote Mike Barthel from that:

If the kids watching MTV now have an interest in politics, they’re certainly not getting any information about it from the channel. Until now, to do so would be unhip, an awful incursion of seriousness into a glittery world. Obama’s glamour did an end-run by showing up all that as tacky, embracing understatement and dignity. And now, MTV’s trying to rub up against that in hopes of catching the energy Obama summons, and pop music lacks.

But, MTV being MTV, the channel failed even in this. Obama’s call for collective action was not really a request for more volunteerism. It was, rather, an effort to restore government to its true position: the solution to our collective needs. This doesn’t require conscious effort on the part of citizens so much as a realization that the government is not an entity that steals your money and forces you to do things you don’t want to do, but instead a tool we use to pool our resources and produce results we could not have come up with on our own. What’s required for this is to have everyone—or almost everyone—on board. Pop music, you may recall, was like this in 1993; in 2009, someone admits on national television that he hasn’t even heard of one of the biggest-selling rock bands in the country. With decreased participation comes decreased benefits, and even as MTV tried to recapture an era it had long since abandoned, so did the country move on to an era that didn’t need its efforts anymore.

Still, I have to note something anecdotal in turn about this: I distinctly remember a commentary on a local LA news station from one of the behind-the-set producers back in 1994 when Kurt Cobain passed on — this was about a week or so after it happened — and while I don’t recall much about what was said, the point the commenter made was that he didn’t know anything about Nirvana until Cobain died, hadn’t even had heard of the name of either band or singer. So pop music was not necessarily ‘like that’ even at that time, though I’m sure I snorted a bit and wondered how he couldn’t’ve known — but that was my own bias coming into play.

There’s way more I could say about these subjects all being intertwined right now, but just a little something to chew over for now. Anyway, it was, again, surprising and admittedly flattering to be singled out like that in the Pazz and Jop section given that my piece was ultimately questioning the rationale of the ballot in the first place, as least from my point of view, and I do thank Rob Harvilla and crew for it.

EDIT — Mike is actually on fire today at Idolator with all this, thanks to a new story he just added talking about the well-worn ‘where are all the protest songs of this decade?’ hobbyhorse, using Carrie Brownstein’s NPR piece today as a starting point. Both well worth reading in full, and Mike’s stellar conclusion is almost a manifesto:

The dominant view of the ’60s always forgets all the bubblegum and parent-pop that was even more popular than the politically engaged stuff, and overstates the reach and importance of the artists we’ve come to value. It seems more likely that music wasn’t more politically engaged in the ’60s; rather, it was more culturally prominent, more of a megaphone for the values of the majority, and thus more representative of public opinion. When music is smaller, why should politics pay attention to it?

The funny thing about all this, of course, is that the election of Barack Obama represents a rejection of “the ’60s,” or at least its dominance over our political and cultural dialogue. By picking Obama over Hillary Clinton during the primaries, Democratic voters seemed to indicate a desire to move away from arguments about culture war and identity politics. Music, on the other hand, still seems stuck in the boomer mire; even the supposedly transformative album of 2009 can be legitimately described as “psychedelic.” There seems a disconnect here.

(And as someone who is now quite thoroughly sick of all the talk around said album, I can’t applaud that final touch enough.)

An economic note, as such

Some time back I said I didn’t feel too well equipped to talk about the random sense of economic upheaval that kicked in back in September. Honestly, I still don’t, and any thoughts I have on the matter are underscored by something crucial that I offer as a slight foreword: as someone who is currently gainfully employed plus possesses access to a steady variety of freelance work, who has savings rather than debt, who does not own real estate and who has no family of his own to take care of, I’m not weighed down by the most common concerns one can read about out there right now, and which do affect a number of friends to one extent or another. The canard that if something happens to your neighbor it’s a recession but if something happens to you it’s a depression rings rather true to my ears at this point, and ultimately I feel like the best I can do is sit and wait on whatever concrete gets developed by the government — open for questioning, review, objections and more from that point forward — while continuing my general course of things as I’ve done, doing one’s best as one can and more, and trying not to take any of it for granted when others are not so fortunate.

So I observe and, of course, ponder. Living in Orange County, where early indications of housing bubbles and their collapse were plentiful — if not yet as scarring as what happened over in the Inland Empire — one key thing I’ve noticed is apparent to almost everyone. Minimalls are essentially the backbone of local business life around here, and every one has a spot open for lease now. Predictions on a couple of financial blogs and increasingly elsewhere are that commercial real estate is going to get hit hard in general but right now it’s apparent it already is here, with those leasing signs out on the street and the empty windows and so forth. Small businesses disappear, bigger ones contract and concentrate, this will go on for some time to come, I figure. Just today I noticed that a store’s left the Lab, the self-consciously arty minimall right next to where I live (I can look out from my apartment into its parking lot), and it’s big enough that there will be a notable hole there soon enough.

Still, I find myself looking at this all abstractedly from the viewpoint I’ve outlined above. Continuing the canard and extending it a bit, if your neighbors lose their favorite businesses it’s a recession, if you lose yours it’s a depression, and so far for me it’s…a recession. So far I’m lucky there.

Quality of life depends not only on you and your specific living situation but what you have to hand, and what’s important for you. The important things for me are places to eat and get food for home, places to hang and enjoy life, places to shop occasionally as needed or desired for extras. I’m lucky in Costa Mesa and the neighborhood I live in, and again, I do my best not to take it for granted, but so long as what I rely on and love is around, I feel almost like I’m in an insular bubble of my own, and that feeling is a bit strange, like everything is suspended in air somehow.

The weather’s been a big help, though, over this past week — I’ll take summer in winter, thanks, and while all the concerns about the environment I’ve lived with and nurtured over the years have taken on a certain new urgency as a result, the part of me that hates the closed darkness of winter for an extended period, the time that is shut down and cold, well, frankly that part of me is singing inside. Said it before, say it again, I do live here for a reason. But in talking with folks at a couple of local restaurant spots I enjoy going to, I hear the weather’s good for them as well, that people are coming out a little more and showing support and so forth, just by being there and, yes, by buying things. A material expression of faith sometimes but even so, and last night at Au Lac, one of my favorite spots around here for almost ten years now, underscored that — new remodelling was wonderful, the place was near packed right from the opening and the food was as great as ever, if a little more expensive but not badly so.

But then I think of this very dry contrast of quotes over at the Cunning Realist, especially this sentence from the second one: “Those eating well in restaurants were those who could afford to eat well in restaurants.” Still, it’s a barely-scratch-the-surface quote in many respects, especially since ‘eating well’ does not have to mean ‘eating expensively,’ as the first quote in the link indicates with its talk of ‘fancy’ restaurants. Perhaps a better way to take that quote would be to consider the frequency of the event: do I eat out every night? Certainly not, usually it’s only once or twice, and has been the case for some time now. Do the folks I was with? Not sure but I very much doubt it — we’re all cooks ourselves and enjoy what we do. Did everyone who was there? Who can say? But Au Lac doesn’t pretend to be the hot in-place for the monied social set around here, it’s very relaxed even as the place has grown bigger and more elegant over time, and looking around I saw a good cross-section of OC as such, at least through my personal lens. (There’s a reason I ended an unpublished novel of mine at said restaurant, and I just said what it is.)

And so life continues. Friend Stripey was one of the folks at the dinner and as we all went over in a heap to see the one-year anniversary of the Box gallery — go if you can, it’s a great exhibition by the peerless Aaron Kraten and the very friendly Keith Noordzy — we reflected on how much of what went wrong in recent years economically seemed to boil down to ridiculous expectations and psychology, whipsawing from overexuberance to deep despair in a matter of weeks. But deep despair can become its own baseline, one where a natural tendency on my part is to get a little impatient and focus on the positive instead. So right now, I will do so, and we’ll all go where we do. I hope I’m not a mindless optimist but I am an optimist nonetheless.

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