Sex and Politics: The Resistance

Fox News is, more than anything else media headquarters for patriarchal resistance and institutional racism in America, just as the Republican Party is headquarters for it’s political arm. In the past few months Fox has lost their former ringleader (Roger Ailes), their leading female commentator (Megan Kelly), and now their biggest moneymaker (Bill O’Reilly) due to a pervasive climate of inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment.

Given that the prevailing attitudes at Fox and in the Republican Party are basically throwbacks to an era of ‘Madmen,’ which educated and aware Americans have grown out of, but Fox/Republicans and their constituency have not, this should be no surprise. While commentators like O’Reilly rail at manufactured bugaboos under the banner of attacking ‘political correctness,’ women broadcasters at Fox are evaluated according to their measurements and how closely they match some male’s beauty pageant ideal. Intelligence and competence must be overmatched by ample exposure of ‘legs and cleavage’ and the job description should read: Applicants preferred: blond and buxom (and very white).’

When news becomes a front for sensationalism and entertainment and government becomes nothing more than performance art the abuse of persons follows inevitably out of the abuse of truth. We have gone very far down that road, but the dumping of Bill O’Reilly demonstrates that the popular and political resistance in the Age of Trump is mounting and is indeed effective. While the forces of reaction circle the wagons a wave is growing with every abuse, every revelation of corruption and every broken promise.

New York Times: ‘Bill O’Reilly Is Forced Out’

Inauguration Day Hunter Thompson

“…my only regret is that I stomped too softly on the bastards.”  – Hunter S. Thompson

So, what did I do on Inauguration Day? Well, I  spent the day at work. My only link to what was going on was an occasional scan of Twitter on my iPhone during breaks and the sounds coming off a YouTube feed on the receiving guy’s computer.

The best moment was just as I was getting out of my car in the morning and the NPR reporter started talking about an “escalation” in the protests involving hordes of black clad demonstrators running down the street breaking windows with hammers and overwhelming the cops who they outnumbered at the time. It brought me back to my own younger days when we trashed the streets of Washington and outran the tear gas from the National Guard as they gathered to take back the city one traffic circle at a time. That was during the bombing of Cambodia. This one is about the inauguration of a human being to be president whom I find so repulsive that I can’t even bear to watch him on tv.

I understand that this sense of angst is more personal than political, harking back to the days of my youth when I had to deal with bullies in my neighborhood and at school. Still, the prospect that I’ll have to reckon with the fact that this abominable fool is pretending to be my ‘leader’ for the next four years is enough to allow me plenty of space to indulge.

Near the end of the day as I searched for more news of the demonstrators and their fates I got caught up instead in a long series of letters from Hunter S. Thompson printed in the Paris Review. This was exactly the therapy I needed in this bizarre space where more than half of America stumbles along in a mind numbing trance struggling to make sense of the insane turn the nation has taken and wondering, “What to do next?”

Ah Hunter, we could certainly use your unvarnished take on our failing dream these days. The closest we can get is Keith Olbermann, another former sports reporter like yourself, who comes from that parallel universe of hyperbole that only sports fans can comprehend, but that so keenly lends itself to political commentary. But Keith lacks your style of genius that rides the fine edge between the serious and the surreal.

But just to read your voice once again in these times we are in somehow reassures me that resistance is possible even in the worst of times. So, I think I’ll pass this on.

“Fuck the American Dream. It was always a lie and whoever still believes it deserves whatever they get – and they will. Bet on it.” 

Paris Review – Fear and Loathing in America from The Paris Review’s Tweet

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“They won’t see this coming.” – Malcolm Reynolds

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The Lost Art of Ecstasy

I was recently sent a link to an article in the New Yorker reporting on the most recent results of research into the use of psychedelics for treating the anxiety of cancer patients. This led me to a longer and much more in depth article written last year by one of my favorite writers on food, in this case food for spiritual nourishment. As in all of Pollan’s work, his investigation goes to great depths and approaches the subject from many angles, alternating history with personal anecdotes to deliver an encompassing view of the possibilities.
For those of us who grew up in the sixties, and embarked on many of these same explorations on our own, without supervision or scientific rigor, these efforts to understand may appear absurdly restrictive. At the same time, they are very familiar. Although the Michael Pollan article is pretty long it’s worth a read, particularly for those facing problems of addiction or depression, the loss of loved ones or the prospect of impending sickness or death, or anyone interested in possibilities at the frontiers of therapy and science.
Finally I include a link to a video that offers a look into the face of a person encountering the ecstasy of release and freedom. There was a time when this look was not so uncommon in the people we found around us.
May we all be happy. May we all be well. May we all find freedom.
The Short Version:
The Long Version:
The Ecstatic Version:

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“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

“You’re part of my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”  – M.R.

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Batman v Superman

I don’t usually give much credence to film reviews, particularly bad ones, and so far reviews of the new Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie have been atrocious. The movie might be awesome and I’m sure I’ll see it eventually, as I’m totally addicted to the genre. The reviews I’ve read indicate that in its attitude of ponderous self absorption and gloom it’s the diametric opposite of a movie like Deadpool. That film continually cracks jokes at itself, reminding us that it’s just a movie and we are an audience entertained by a story about a regular guy who has some real problems along with his unasked for super powers. The most successful superhero movies thus far have rarely dispensed with a liberal dose of humor amid the action and the power punches and all the nefarious scheming. In fact, a key to the enormous success of Marvel Studios (and the long running success of the comic book brand) is that it’s never abandoned a sense of fun, even in its darkest moments. No matter their extraordinary powers, Marvel characters tend to act like actual, regular people, just as screwed up and petty as the rest of us. Their ‘gifts’ always have the double edge of being both an isolating burden as much as a potential benefit to humanity. They are never an embodiment of perfect virtue or perfect evil. Even a character like Thor (who is actually a God) is subject to the foibles and misperceptions of humanity. Iron Man protects himself with a solid armor of egotism. Daredevil and the Hulk struggle with deep wells of  repressed anger. Jennifer Jones is full of self-recrimination and doubt.
There are many who simply don’t get the point of these characters or this genre. For me they express one of the best uses of the spectacular nature of the screen. Like the oldest narratives that we know of, they offer us exaggerated embodiments of the qualities that make us human. By use of the mask and the costume they create enough distance so that we are able to contemplate our own natures objectively, evaluating the core values at the center of our moral and ethical universe. To a large extent this is what all movies and plays and operas and fictions do, by the very act of creating a simulated universe existing outside of our own. In the case of the superhero genre character hugs the edges of caricature thus bringing sharp emphasis to particular qualities and tendencies. In the growing pantheon of a comic book universe we begin to see realms that have more than a little relationship to the archetypal edifices of Olympus or a Valhalla, and are at least as rich and nuanced as anything that the Greeks or Norsemen came up with. By bringing the archetypes down to the level of our familiar world and merging them with familiar characters and situations we’ve expanded the potential of drama to reach into the collective psyches of whole cultures where we can expose the inner fears and hopes that unite and divide us.
These are moral dramas and passion plays. They harken back to the medieval pageants and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries that are at the origins of our modern secular dramas. In an age in which so much of what has held our civilizations together is being challenged we’ve contrived to discover new ways to ask the important questions about what binds us to one another. The trick to doing this without crossing a line into the ridiculous, is a proper mix of passion and humor, reflection and action that both draws us into the drama and allows us to experience it’s separate elements as distinct embodiments that we can feel. When we watch a superhero on the screen we actually, in effect, put on that costume and carry it away with us.
Personally I’ve preferred the Marvel approach to this archetypal realm. The DC universe has always appeared a little too sharply divided between good and evil, it’s characters taking themselves a little too seriously for my taste. As for Batman and Superman, I enjoyed the somewhat parodic nature of the early Batman revivals on screen, and considered the sheer dramatic energy of the Christopher Nolan/Frank Miller Batman movies to be exceptional. The key to the Batman character’s appeal is that he exists half in shadow. Superman I find a bit problematic. The original mold created in the late 30s and 40’s during an enormous worldwide struggle between totalitarianism and democracy presented him appropriately as the perfect embodiment of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” The character emerged out of the heroic fantasies of a couple of young jewish guys who longed to identify and assimilate into the dream of the red, white and blue. In my own perceptions as a young man feeling like an outsider in a post war world of unquestioned conformity Superman came off to me a little too saintly, a little too ’straight.’ As for Batman, Green Arrow and Green Hornet they were all rich guys who helped humanity out of some sense of charity or guilt. They had big cars and influence and certainly never had to worry about holding a job.
The genius of Stan Lee and his legacy lies in his assistance that his heroes never get too big for their own britches. The ones that do pretty much are guaranteed to end up as villains. Thor doesn’t help us because he’s a god, but just because he likes us. Spiderman is an awkward teenager growing into an awkward adult. Doctor Strange is an arrogant greed head who is led by difficult circumstances into a spiritual conversion. Black Widow is haunted by crimes she was compelled to commit in a former life. Most importantly, the effect of their actions as heroes is rarely without unforeseen consequences, making their lives and the lives of those around them even more complicated. I could relate to all of these guys.
Of course, in the years since my childhood, the approach of both the Marvel and the DC universe has become more and more similar. But, as a person who is used to Apple computers, using Windows always feels somewhat constricting, even though it looks and acts more and more like what we’re used to. Another analogy perhaps is the difference between the Democratic and Republican mindsets, where one sees the world through progressive glasses and the other through conservative ones. With “Dawn of Justice” DC and Warner Brothers hopes to achieve the kind of success that Marvel and Disney have attained in the past decade. Perhaps these gigantic struggles between corporate entities, political philosophies, and comic book universes is like an endless set of mirrors for the struggles taking place within each of us. Perhaps ‘Batman and Superman,’ both who are after all supposed to be the ‘good guys,’ is an apt echo of the battle we are now waging within cultures, political parties, religions and within ourselves.

Here I Am

Here. Here I am. My first weekend here in this beast of the city. The snow has fallen and encased the new apartment. The maze of the city closes in around me. I’ve left Elysium for an engagement with the edges. To the West the wave of mountains rises against the plain, houses are sprawled across in patchy subdivisions from here all the way to the northern farmlands. The city is always growing, already too big for itself.

Elysium the Beautiful breeds insanity. One loses touch, drifting into the mind of strange paranoias and bizarre scenarios of good and evil. I’m happy to be away from all that nonsense. The secret life of farmers and suburbanites. Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Everywhere the Word goes out, “I own this, as far as I can imagine. This is mine. No government or people will take it away.” Yet, wildfires rage, with no satisfactory explanation, for we know no history and only want life to be simple.

I have been assured, by those who claim to know, that I am the victim of a strange conspiracy and here I sit in quiet winter solitude, contemplating that possibility. It occurs to me that I’ve been around for too may lifetimes not to be able to smell evil when I encounter it. After all, evil’s really just a mirror of myself, or a part of me anyway. I know it too intimately not to recognize it in others.

There’s plenty of evil in this world, mostly pushed by ambitious hucksters with boring agendas, something about telling us who to fear and who to hate. Then they sell us books and dvd’s and lure us to their online sites where the major promotion is themselves. They are mostly paid very well by the very people they claim are the ‘adversaries,’ those whose interests are served by turning people against one another. They point at the Jews or the Blacks or the Chinese or the ‘Socialists,’ or whoever is leaving those ‘mysterious’ con trails in the heavens, seeding our precious air with their filthy mind control.

Oh shit, I’m just tired of all this. I’ll just walk away from it now, away from these helpless fears, away from useless arguments that ignore history and are only angry frightened screaming into darkness. The people downstairs are my companions, shouting mindlessly at the t.v. while their Broncos win. There is no place to hide from the world here and it’s somehow soothing to be alone, away from anyone that can be trusted.

You once complained about a teabag that was folded beautifully in a paper pyramid – a waste of paper, time and energy! – you said. You only felt compelled to complain. “Where is the ocean,” you said, “Where are the trees?” “Where is the desert?” What is the real question?

When I came to the city I thought that I was leaving a refuge and returning to the edges of the world. I was wrong to think so, to find out that the vast maze of city provides the only real refuge of anonymity. I am totally submerged in the great darkness that’s civilization with all of its pain and glory. Every face that I see is a lie and there is little possibility for truth, only acceptance, abandonment and perhaps some ultimate contentment while surrendering to the oceanic flow.

I don’t know where this life has taken me. I am both pirate and defender of this realm and I bellow from within a font of night jewels. I no longer need your company or your approval and I will do what I must to see us to the end. Your spies and secret sailors, those who reveal all of the hidden plans are useless now. The plan is older than the wind that blows above the deserts and will continue at all costs and we will either serve or fail given our own particular gifts.

Welcome to the new world order.

The Victim Thing

It finally came to me, the reason I haven’t been able to get past the middle of the second season of “Breaking Bad,” the reason I can’t abide conspiracy theories, and the reason some stories draw me in and others bring up in me a barrier of stubborn resistance.

It’s the ‘victim’ thing.

Surely there are real victims in the world, who fall to genocide, starvation, famine, war and general global neglect. These are things I want to know about, because they are part of the truth, and only when we are exposed to the truth can we take any sort of useful action.

We are all ‘victims’ of something. People cut in front of us in line, treat us unfairly, ignore our best qualities, or we are victims of our own mistakes and unrealistic expectations. Fair enough. I certainly belong to that club.

But there’s the kind of victimization that’s solely a product of the mind, which functions as a state of being, a form of self-identification. This sort of victimization has two possible outcomes, both self-reinforcing. Either we surrender to being forever the butt of some cosmic joke in which we are the eternal fall-guy and there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to change the odds, or else we try to turn the tables by becoming the victimizer of others. In either scenario we find ourselves in eternal conflict with the world as it is.

An example of the former strategy is the drama queen. I have myself taken this route on more occasions than I’m proud to admit. For years it seemed that my life was a constant internal (mostly) battle with authority figures and with their ridiculous rules and regulations and unrealistic demands. My attitude was that, as the smartest person in the room, every other agenda should be shifted to accommodate my own particular modes of being. Underneath all of this, of course, was the nagging feeling that I could never be good enough, a feeling from which I could conveniently hide by projecting it onto others.

As you can imagine, this strategy gets no one anywhere useful.

Variations of this strategy include the ‘always complaining’ victim who is more and more seen as a pain in the ass and either gets shuffled out of the way or out of the organization, or else is ‘forced’ to quit, thus completely fulfilling the requirements of victimhood. More common is the ‘passive aggressive‘ strategy where one presents a minimally acceptable face to the people in charge while undermining their authority by engaging in corrosive gossip or kvetching with one’s fellow victims in the lunchroom or behind closed doors.

The other kind of victimhood is much more insidious and ultimately much more destructive. It can be indulged in by whole cultures and used as one of the most effective tools of politics and war. Walter White of “Breaking Bad” is the perfect example of this alternative. Seeing himself as having been rendered powerless by the circumstances of his life, extending to the bad faith and betrayal that he perceives in those around him, he chooses to become the ultimate victimizer, the “one who knocks” as he so aptly puts it. We’re fascinated by his every move as he descends ever deeper into a hell of his own making.

Looking around, I see Walter White in every corner of every awful conflict in the world today. Regard the recent actions of our Republican congress in its dealings with the State of Israel. We have here two political entities who draw considerable energy from their self-portrayal as victims. Republicans see themselves as the lone defenders of the ideals of white christian destiny against the rising hordes of the envious poor, the foreign invaders of our borders, unbelievers, and the practitioners of ‘reverse-racism.’ Israel, finding itself besieged on all sides by people who view it as either an illegitimate state or an undemocratic occupier finds itself caught in a cycle of increasing paranoia (the ultimate state of victimhood) toward just about everyone, even its allies. Desperately, the Israeli Prime Minister engages in the politics of its most powerful ally by appealing to those who most closely share his fearful and apocalyptic (and imperialist) view of the world.

It was the spectacle of an Israeli leader making political hay with Republicans that made me see the wide ranging implications of victimhood and to understand why I find it so repellent. The horror of it all is that those who feel the most victimized ultimately become the worst offenders against human aspiration and the most passionate advocates for war. Just ask yourselves, what nation, and what party have become the driving force toward a wider war in the Middle East?
The position of Israel is not so much different than that of Walter White, in that the more aggressive the stance the more destructive the repercussions. Here Israel has made a very bad bargain, for the people with whom it has invested its hopes are those who tend to view the world in apocalyptic terms, where only the righteous shall survive while the impure unbelievers are condemned to perdition. For them, Israel has little meaning beyond being a symbol of their own global hegemony and as fulfillment of a short-term prophecy.

For every nation and every party that exists in a world of paranoia and victimhood, the world is closing in, while the worst atrocities are committed in the name of vengeance against unbelievers. But we are no longer living in a world where one people can survive by disregarding the rights of others. Ultimately, one person, or one nation, can only make war against the whole world for a limited time, until the tide shifts and the world overwhelms both fear and hope and all of our conspiracies vanish in the tide.

…and one of these days I’ll get around to watching the next episode of “Breaking Bad.”

If It Smells Like Religion….

New Rule: ‘If it looks like a religion and acts like a religion and smells like a religion…it’s probably a religion.

Our brave hidalgo mounts the southbound train and proceeds upon adventures that will bring him face to face not with windmills, as they are of an archaic character and are only of service to cows, but with the true adversaries of this day. Although it’s true that the landscapes of this time and place resemble those in which that earlier hero, Quixote wandered, with its broad and brilliantly lit plains ringed by dark mountains and forested thickets, our hero won’t encounter imaginary giants or dark knights in castles. Instead he finds himself in a wilderness of competing doctrines and beliefs that both claim to explain his reality and threaten to freeze his thinking. 

The land is layered in religions and their histories going back even farther than that of ancient Spain. Our train crosses pueblo lands inhabited by clans decked out in turquoise and squash blossoms. There are the cathedrals of the Spanish with their churches of forgiveness and absolution. Then the conquering armies of the Protestant northlands arrive with all of their self-rendered judgements and ever splintering dogmas and styles. Finally the religion of the technocrats arrives, presuming to know with certainty both our past and our future. These are all parts of the soul of New Mexico, for this is a place that exists where many boundaries intersect.  

Our hero knows that the country that stretches desolate and dry on either side of this train will never give up their spirit or their mystery. Being a warrior he choses to place himself at the boundary between what we can know and what we will never know. Although he respects science and rationality as sacred tools, honed through long struggles and only recently released from the shackles of superstition, he senses that in any presumption of absolute purity there are seeds to destroy the world.   

Observe the Richard Dawkins website.  Here are links to many of the carefully constructed arguments denying that atheism is a religion. Surely Richard Dawkins believes that the purpose of his site is only to defend science against the threatening inroads of fundamentalism. And yet, observe, here is a manual for proselytizing the faith that echoes precisely the rhetoric of religion. (Almost like the Tea Party using Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals as an organizing tool.) Articles on science weave among condemnatory commentary against religions. There are blogs where atheists can talk with other atheists and where we can learn that the scientific method is the only valid means for discerning the truth and that religion has caused most of the problems today afflicting the world. Most importantly we will learn about the impregnable boundaries beyond which reason is excluded (this is dogma).

 
Digging deeper one will undoubtedly link to the argument that atheists don’t have to prove the nonexistence of God for there is no way to prove a negative. On the other hand, why would one bother? In this argument we are then told that it’s the burden of religion to prove the existence of things like God and the spirit world, but that only the rules of scientific enquiry will be acceptable. Again, why would one bother? When whatever can’t be measured or replicated within the limits of the laboratory or the statistical survey is discarded as superstition there isn’t much room for things that can only be experienced on a personal level. Whatever our experience, we are asked to remove it to someplace deemed ‘the personal’ with the implication that we should keep it strictly to ourselves. If we let it out that would be considered irrational, even mad, a religious act, and therefore it behooves all people in all cultures to submit to a single system of assumptions or humanity is doomed.  

Submission is the word and the demand. Militant atheists say they are not a religion, but like every fundamentalist faith their goal is absolute submission, with little respect or regard for those who resist. Some atheists entertain us by calling other cultures and other beliefs “stupid” or “inferior.” They claim the right because science has cured disease and made life longer, if not better. Scientific thinking represents progress and is the salvation of the race. Ignored is the fact that it may also contribute to its doom. There’s little or no acknowledgement of the mistakes and abuses and unintended consequences that have afflicted the history of ‘rational’ thought and no recognition that the worship of progress has led to horrors inflicted on people declared to be primitive and thus evolutionarily ‘inferior.’ While many modern advances in tolerance and human freedom have been led by people of faith, scientists have sometimes been guilty of reinforcing the worst prejudices against those who don’t fit the dominant cultural criteria. 

Many atheists complain that they’ve been oppressed by the dominance of superstitious belief, and it is true that they have been, as we all have been. Just about every religion has been oppressed at one time or another and whenever religion is used as a utilitarian tool for governing there are abuses against those who deviate from dogma. On the other hand atheists complain about having to sit and listen to prayers while in effect many are advocating cultural genocide. It is assumed that rule by strict technocracy will be somehow better. One can look perhaps at Communist China to find an answer to that. Militant atheists say that their intention is to advance reason, but beneath the veneer of reason and intolerance of religion one can sometimes detect the stench of cultural bigotry. Atheism, even in its etymology is a belief system defined by other belief systems that it attempts to negate. 

Not all atheists are zealots and not all Christians or Muslims are fundamentalists. All religions have their priests and their zealots. Atheism is no exception. Among atheists there is a tribe of militants who follow the prophets on a mission to stamp out religion. They apparently believe that their way is the only way, and that the world will not find peace until the absolute superiority of scientific thinking is accepted by all. When faced with contradictions or paradox they are as mystified as anyone, but they will deny to the last that there is anything in the universe which can’t be measured or known, there are no miracles and the all that we perceive can be reduced to equations. They are intrigued by mysteries but they will never trust in them.

What’s admirable in the scientific mind is that it proceeds with doubt, always testing and challenging its own hypothesis and never claiming to have achieved more than theory. The scientists’ frustration with those who claim to know the boundaries of everything, be they religious fanatics or conspiracy theorists or New Age charlatans, is quite understandable. However,  every major advance in science has challenged the established boundaries, beliefs and assumptions of a particular era. When it ceases to do this it becomes a religion, just like atheism has become a religion. 

As our hero drifts across the countryside in this very late autumn, looking down into poor backyards and water filled arroyos, with the crowns of churches poking over reservation trees and the train whistle sounding, he settles once more into the knowledge that he will never know the truth of things. Not the whole truth. All of the books he reads and the faces he meets only open up new mysteries. Our brave hidalgo will always battle dragons because he likes a good battle, but I earnestly wish that he will avoid inflexibility, for the universe is fluid and ever changing. Whatever we think is absolutely certain will likely be challenged and then change again and then again and finally drift off like smoke in the wind. Even science in its long history of trial and error has discovered this.    

 
– Ralph E. Melcher

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You Can’t Stop The Signal

Chomsky Responds To Truthers

I recently made a comment in an online forum that listening to Noam Chomsky for me was an act of self-torture. Not that his contribution to political discourse isn’t incredibly valuable in terms of presenting an alternative point of view than that of the mainstream. Chomsky approaches the world in a relentlessly rational manner that allows for very little in the way of levity or even creativity so that his dry recitation of facts from the perch of academic authority usually leaves me feeling exhausted rather than inspired. In my opinion this approach leads too inevitably into a constraining vice of political correctness and away from the kind of flexible response to events needed in our to approach to the complexities of perception. 

 
That said, after watching the following video of Chomsky responding to a question from a 911 ‘Truther’ I came away with a new appreciation for the disciplined and hard-boiled approach of truly scientific thinking to the evaluation of facts and conclusions. As anyone who knows me soon discovers I have very little patience (none) with so-called “Truthers” and with those who indulge in and promote conspiracy theories of any kind. I believe that their approach to ‘facts’ echoes that of the average Bible thumping evangelist who wants to convince me that dinosaurs lived with human beings six thousand years ago. This stuff should be confined to the shelves of occult bookstores (with the ravings of Alex Jones and David Icke) and is entirely corrosive to true political discourse. Parading in the costumes of intellectual rigor these writers and ranters are only dedicated to making a buck by getting people to substitute their predigested dogma for any effort at real thinking. 
 
 
Thanks to Open Culture for unearthing this video.  
 

Defending Us From Healthcare

Unlike our Calvinist brethren and most of the members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce I believe that healthcare is a basic human right. I actually believe that the way healthcare is practiced in the United States qualifies almost as a criminal enterprise. Certainly I’m not happy with many of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act as passed, particularly the concessions made to the insurance industry. Yet, I wonder if any bill could have gotten through, given the track record of any effort to advance socially mandated healthcare over the past 40 years, unless attempts were made to indulge conservatives by adopting something like their own successful program enacted in Massachusetts. The ACA isn’t what I would have liked, but the accomplishment of actually having passed a law addressing healthcare as a “right” is a major accomplishment. It goes to the heart of everything dividing Americans into what appears to be irreconcilable factions. In fact it brings about nothing less than the first faint cracks in the walls of prejudice that have been used as tools for control almost as long as we’ve been in existence, and most effectively since the cold war.
 
I would like to have seen a better law, but this is better than no law at all, and it’s a start. As with Social Security and Medicare, it’s inspired resistance from the same political factions using identical rhetoric. Both programs, after all, entail a redistribution of wealth and thus evoke a visceral response in a country that has been programmed by it’s religious leaders, backed conveniently by the rulers of industry, to believe we are all self-sufficient individuals responsible only before God. Both programs continue to be revised and improved over time to address problems and inefficiencies. Obamacare is not only a crack in the dam of the absolute power of the wealthy, it is in fact another challenge to the concept of white Protestant supremacy. Particularly irksome is the fact that it was passed by a black man and even carries his suspiciously Islamic sounding name (ironically it’s the Republicans who made this possible). You may think this an irrelevant diversion, but I believe it’s one of the issues that most effectively fuels the fires of the trained pack of attack dogs that the Right calls it’s ‘base.’ (I also believe that America is still essentially a racist culture that, having built much of its wealth through slavery and genocide, is still mostly in denial of this fact.)
 
Indeed, the Affordable Care Act is certainly subversive to the American Way as we’ve practiced it for far too long, and it’s a form of subversion that I heartily endorse.   
 

The resistance to any sort of publicly mandated healthcare goes back at least as far as president Truman, and before that to the time of Roosevelt and the labor struggles before and during the Great Depression. It’s that ol’ bugaboo socialism, a word that’s been relentlessly programmed into American business culture in order to evoke a Pavlovian response whenever any expansion of government influence threatens to interfere with the ‘orderly’ process of accumulating capital. 

 
Yes, I’ve heard all of the rhetoric about exceptions and fairness and delays. I just listened to a Representative from Tennessee run all of this out on the news. Pretty obscure and pretty desperate I thought. Undoubtedly these talking points get pounded out everyday on the Rupert Murdock Network. What I hear is the game of politics, to erect as many straw men as one can in order to obfuscate the real issues behind sound bites that hopefully confuse the unlearned masses. I don’t think it’ll work this time. The Democrats actually appear to be united around some kind of solid backbone on this, while the Republicans are all over the place. 
 
You may object, “Straw Dogs you say!!” Just like the stuff about the NSA and the military, which are trotted out whenever either side disagrees with those who we’ve elected to defend us from our own screw ups. (Why don’t we defund these instead of making business pay for our healthcare?) Ironically, The very same people who are fighting tooth and claw to prevent the expansion of government are the ones who benefit most from military contracts in their districts. As for our foreign policy, it’s the very same fear of the socialist menace that has gotten us involved in all this hot water in the first place. We are the ones, after all, that overthrew the first democracy in Iran and financed the Taliban, both actions taken in order to stop the spread of socialism. It’s we who’ve reaped the whirlwind that has resulted in an explosion of extremist Islamic factions on a kill spree all over the world. Americans who think we can just wash our hands of all this and take our military forces and just walk away and let ‘them’ work it out, without considerable blowback, are deluding themselves as far as our complicity and responsibility. 
 
So, as the forces of reaction have chosen siege warfare as their tactic, I say let the siege begin… 

 

Hearing Voices (Revisited)

In the fall of 2001, under a harvest moon on the last weekend of September, three weeks after the bombing of the World Trade Center, a group of musicians and artists of various sorts gathered in Rangely, Colorado for an extraordinary event. I drove up from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the invitation of my friend Michael Stanwood to be initiated into what was then called “The Order of the Tank” The Tank was a large water tank built on a hillside just above the town, where a railroad had been planned but never completed. Never used for what was intended It had been abandoned for years, a destination for teenagers and their dates or a target for graffiti, until one of the teenagers introduced a visiting musician from Denver to the unique soundscape contained within. 

 The nation was still in a state of shock and it was the dawn of a new state of paranoia. On my approach to the site I stopped to take a photo and was interrogated by the local sheriff because of some public buildings that happened to be in the foreground of what I was shooting. On the way home I was stopped once more near the border of New Mexico for a reason so obscure I can’t even remember what it was, other than it had to do with “suspicious” driving conduct of some sort. 

 After talking my way past the sheriff and reaching the site I entered an entirely different dimension, where the burdens of the world, the fear and paranoia and the drumbeats for war had no reality or relevance. What follows in an account of that weekend. This was the first recording session in a project that became teh album Portal, produced by Michael Stanwood. Here is a slightly revised version of a piece that appeared originally in Volume 16 of Fish Drum Magazine.

 Hearing Voices (Revisited)

 I.

The approach to this small corner of western Colorado from the south, once you’ve accomplished the steep escarpment called Book Cliffs, is through Canyon Pintado, a long winding flat bottomed valley full of cows, ranchers and Indian petroglyphs. I needed to reach town by dark and didn’t really have time to stop for anything between dodging wandering herds of cattle and following the weaving dust of pickup trucks. But something caught me as I drove by a series of national park pull-offs; it was a sign reading “Kokopelli” and a pointer up toward some rock paintings just beneath a steep cliff face that overlooked the road. I resisted at first, driving on about a quarter mile. Something tugged me back, and I stopped and turned back. The hump backed flute player was too close to the theme of the journey for me not to stop and pay homage. 

Pulling off to the side I let another pickup truck pass and got out to climb the stone pathway up to an overhang. I could actually glimpse from the road a figure in red beneath the leaning stones, bent beneath the hump carried on his back, gazing back along the valley, the flute or didgeridoo he’s holding pointing along his gaze. I’d never seen this figure drawn so large or colored in such a deep red ochres. Below his feet was the inevitable spiral that traces a path from origin through migration and back to the center of the world. 

I’d traveled that day more than 400 miles, leaving a country of burning forests around Los Alamos, then up one of the most beautiful roads in north America, Route 84 through the Chama Valley. The evening before I stood with my ten year old son across from a gambling casino where we could watch the long dragon tail of the Cerro Grande fire as it wound it’s way through the canyons and over the slopes above the town of White Rock. The next morning I left behind the vanilla smell of burning yellow pine and the dangerous ghosts that emerged to haunt the birthplace of the atom bomb. I came up through Ghost Ranch country, past the red cliffs and standing rocks and natural amphitheaters by Canjilon Creek, turning west at Chama. Turning west, I entered Indian country, winding through the woods and canyons guarded by the Jicarilla Apache, passing the town of Dulce and then into the vast northern reaches of Navajo land. Across the Navajo Dam, it’s reservoir stretching off between the mesas, I crossed the border of Colorado, continuing through Durango and Creede following the white waters pouring through gorges. Leaving old mining towns transformed into tourist destinations I climbed out of the Navajo desert and onto the Colorado plateau and into the high northern country.

I gazed at this Kokopelli, placed here before the first Spaniard came looking for gold, looking back along the trails of natives and explorers, miners and gamblers, fluting his remembrance that once we emerged from a world destroyed by darkness. I remember thinking that we could easily lose our world to deadly darkness once again.  

At the end of that long canyon where the southern road joins the northern route that follows the White River is the town of Rangely. I had been told to look for a water tank, and the whole dry valley was full of water tanks. Here in a parched corner of Colorado I found myself in another high desert, more desolate than the desert from which I’d come. Rangely is an oasis among the gray mesas, a town filled with trees and trailer courts built all along the river and the encroaching bluffs. Once through the town another expanse of desolate hills begins and marches off to the horizons to the north and west. 

I was told that the tank was on the far edge of town and that it couldn’t be missed. After being the town’s main street, Route 64 turns to the north and just to the right one looks up and sees what appears like an enormous silver painted art deco spaceship overlooking the bottom land that lines a creek and a winding dirt road that slithers its way back between the hills. A rakish Rio Grande Railroad logo is painted in black letters up near the top and around the bottom up to a tall man’s height is a multi-colored ring of graffiti 

At the base of the bluff just across the dirt road sits a couple of dwellings built around a converted house trailer. I pulled up and parked, walking up to the porch door of the main house where my knocking stirred the interest of a couple of enthusiastic dogs, more interested in wrestling with each other than with bothering a stranger. An energetic woman in her 60’s appeared at the screen door, grabbed the dogs firmly by their collars and welcomed me loudly over their frantic yipping, “You must be Ralph from Santa Fe…your friends are already here. Come on in and have some food…you wanna beer?” 

The enormous front room was filled with knickknacks, a bar, a full size store dummy dressed like a rather effeminate looking cowboy, and the biggest television screen I’d ever seen. A game show is on and the image is so impressively huge that I’m temporarily transfixed in the glare of the faces, voices larger than life, diving for dollars across the virtual wall of phosphors. Rescue came with the sound of familiar voices and the smells of a feast issuing from the kitchen.   

Over the next hour or so I listened to country gossip: Chevron, the town’s biggest employer was set to move on and a good chunk of the male population would be out of work, the vacation business was growing, the black folk up at the Community College had started to wander into town. I heard an extended commentary on the vices and virtues of the nearest big towns of Craig and Vernal, where there was a new Walmart and a shopping center. We urban types got plenty of good-natured ribbing from the hostess and her husband, but it all came as a piece with their amazing generosity. 

After a while it was time for the four of us who’d arrived from the cities to climb up the hill to the tank and embark on the ceremony to which we’d been invited. 

Denver musicians had been coming up here for 14 years, ever since, on a Chataqua concert tour, one of them was turned on to the sounds of the Tank by a local teenager. Visits became increasingly regular over the years, attracting a growing circle of inspired sound explorers. In the early nineties recordings made inside the Tank became an album called Leaving Eden. It featured a host of instruments and voices, including hand drums, whirl tubes, autoharps, a viola, Synclavier and a child’s chorus.  

For a short time in the mid eighties the graffiti on the Tank took a turn toward rage and racism felt by teenagers who were being displaced, perhaps fueled by the climate of Reagan’s America. Eventually a heavy-duty lock was affixed to the outside hatch and most of the verbal ugliness got painted over. The Mormon businessman who’d assembled the Tank as part of an anticipated business venture turned ownership over to a musician who was willing to take on the property taxes. In this way a vessel that was moved here in the fifties from another state to hold water became instead a wonderfully unique temple to sound.  

As dusk approached Michael removed the padlock, and one by one we crawled in through the round bolted hatch about two and a half feet across, where a large pipe would have entered to conduct the flow of water in and out of the container. Now a long electrical cord climbed the hill from the house below and climbed into the opening. Grasping the bolted edge of the hatch we slid in feet first to find ourselves at first in total darkness. As our eyes gradually adjusted we first noticed a dim blue-green glow emanating from what appeared to be a mixing board set in a square metal case occupying the center of the floor. The space inside the Tank is about 45 feet across and 75 feet high. A faint circle of daylight leaks in around the circumference of the conical roof high above. A ladder goes up one side to a hatchway opening to the outside. A slim pipe near the ground bridges the middle of the floor from wall to wall, providing a place for sitting down. Several fat candles burned at either end and in the center. The walls of the Tank are black except for about 10 feet of white around the bottom and up along the sides of the ladder where there was once graffiti.

Immediately upon entering one realizes that this place is in love with sound. The smallest scuffle of footsteps or the sound of a dropped whisper are taken up and whirled around inside the container to be transformed into awesome and numinous voices. A single note launched by voice or instrument is sustained for up to 35 seconds. The Tank is a place of perfectly circular echoes, every sound transformed into pure ambient presence, unveiling its inner dynamics like the unfolding of a flower. This is a soundspace that can’t really be duplicated by electronic means. Like the world’s great cathedrals it attracts those who hunger to be in the middle of the sound, exploring it like the landscape of another planet. Entering the space one finds oneself immediately in a state of trance. 

For an interval our company drifted around the circle, making sounds, stopping to listen, adding overtones, shaping new notes, replying to our own voices vibrating in the air. A couple of wide PVC tubes were propped against the pipes with bundles of cloth stuffing one end and an extra large kitchen sponge resting near the other. I learned that these make an instrument of deep ethereal rhythm dubbed the “whirl tube”. When one claps the sponge against the open end of the tube a deep ethereal harmonic booming is created.  A row of didgeridoo are propped next to the entry hatch. Almost the entire floor is covered with blankets and the blankets are covered with musical instruments and noisemakers of every kind. Turning back toward the entrance, one glimpses the outside world through the circle of bolts that line the open hatchway. Another world out there that has been utterly left behind. 

 

 

II.

 

At the beginning of the evening a neighbor from down below brought her teenage daughter and we invited her to crawl inside and have a look. She was very young and quite shy among these strange older men, but she was fascinated and curious. The array of instrumentation spread over the blanketed floor was like nothing she’s ever seen. Jeremiah showed her how to get a sound from blowing into a conch shell and this inspired her to ask that her mother fetch from the van outside the French horn she played in her high school band. Tentatively she lifted it to her lips and blew a couple of clear brass notes that filled the space like the sound of trumpets in an angelic choir. We were all a bit overwhelmed at power and beauty of the sound. The girl, overcome by shyness and weirdness, retreated outside to her mother and they left. The memory of that excellent sound stays behind and is in some way resurrected in the sound of Michael blowing into conch and pipes, calling the proceeding into formal commencing. As the full moon rose above the tank no one doubted that spirits would be pulled out of the air and come down into this place to play and echo and improvise through the persons of all of us. 

As the evening proceeded each of us was merged with a collective voice, made up of every sound seamlessly woven into one in the magnificent chamber of air. As the sound was woven and blended and as it rose and fell I found myself joined in the chorus with a loud clear voice, a vocalization brought out of me as an improvised language made of pure sound, responding to every nuance in the ever evolving breath of the evening. I felt my whole body moving with the changing character of the sound, becoming part of a whirling dance gracefully moving  and swirling around the circumference; Jeremiah and Mark and I circling Michael with shakers and strings, pipes and drums.  

Occasionally Jeremiah would crouch over the digital console, face dimly lit by the green LEDs, concentrating on capturing whatever sonic messages he found circling in the air. Both images and abstractions became consigned to the nether darkness. We were like denizens of the ancient Lescaux caverns, finding refuge and ceremony to enter a world beyond dream. There were no words or images inside, for the sound in the Tank is more primordial than language itself. All sound blends and swirls and transforms like the waves and ripples washing over sand patterns at the bottom of a tide pool. Underneath the far off canopy of moonlight the candle flames flickered. Shadows were dimly discerned against the black walls. The sounds of voice, rhythm and breath beckoned the spirit toward ecstasy. Four clear male voices rose in chant and song. The deep booming of the Whirl Tubes echoed in unearthly rhythm while in counterpoint Michael strummed the delicate silver strings of an autoharp. Mark played runs on a guitar while chanting in tongues and Jeremiah marched around the circle to the beat of an African djambala. The dancing and singing and playing wove and pulsed in and out of the hours with an occasional silence as a cycle discovered its natural conclusion. Then another song began, and a new ceremony with another theme, another rhythm and a new harmonic. 

Once, as we sang and danced and played we heard the sound of a great booming descending upon us like the ghost of a passing train, or an earthquake. We are struck silent and then realize its the sound of a great evening desert wind, striking the sides of the Tank and rising against them like the herald of another angel of the air. The immense sound played on the sides of this tall metal ark as if in response to the exuberant voices rising from within.

After several hours we were exhausted, and the sounds of wind and voices declined with the descent of the moon. We crawled outside beneath an incredible star canopy and stood together wrapped in a blanket of absolute silence. Then the musicians scattered to their bunks and trailers and Jeremiah kept vigil in the tank until morning.  

*    *    *    *

 

III.

The next day I stood over the gray hills that sweep northward under the hot dusty breezes of the desert. The rising and plunging of oilrigs dotted the landscape like huge insects drawing sustenance out of the rocky soil. Farther north are dinosaur bones near the source of the Green River that soon merges with the Colorado in an impossible landscape just south of the Four Corners. There are the Canyonlands known by migrants, Navajos and Mormons. Golden angels trumpet from the tops of white churches and ancient carvings appear in the rocks. Still farther south is Monument Valley and a landscape that turns brick red and the twisted shapes of enormous gods that parade over the desert. At the end of a long spiral around this Indian Country are the Hopi villages where the dramas and contradictions of human life on earth are played out in the timeless costumes of a yearly round. In square stone structures built into the earth the ceremonies unfold, passed on through generations, going back to the emergence of the People out of the destruction of the fourth world 

As the morning grew late we began packing up the instruments and moving them outside. In one last sing before we emptied the place Michael vibrated a long droning breath through the didgeridoo. Again the sound builds and climbs and is sustained. I’m inspired to climb the 75-foot steel ladder hugging the side of the miraculous cylinder, to where the air grows hot in the presence of a sun climbing into another day. Hugging the rungs with one arm I turned around to gaze straight down on our magic circle. Michael set down his instrument and his strong clear voice poured over the rhythm of someone’s drum. On the other side of the circle Jeremiah once again attended the green glowing meters of the mixing board. Michael’s voice chanted through the intense vibrating tones of air while Mark was captured and taken by the rhythm of the tribal drum and I found myself calling out into the air suspended from above. The powers we summoned had been waiting through the night for our spirits to totally surrender and now, miraculously, they’ve caught us by surprise in the dark of the day.  

Finally our voices allowed themselves to fade into silence and in the middle of the silence Michael softly wept, overcome by the feeling his own clear singing called up in him. Then, each of us in turn laid our hands upon him, letting him know that we had all ridden the sound, and although we will never know, we all somehow understand.  

IV.

“There is sanity and madness, but the key to creativity and life lies precisely on the boundary between.” – R.D. Laing 

…and Orpheus falls…and the children dance…and no one can doubt that there are angels in the symmetry of these sounds…the grail that we seek is direct, unmediated experience.  

In the beginning we hear voices. After a time the voices shape themselves into words. The words then shape themselves into stories and the stories become our reality. These narratives help us form the web of wonders we call human society. By the tone and the colors of the words we discover an identity amidst the undifferentiated weave of what we see and hear and allow ourselves to perceive. 

We learn to make symbols for these sounds. We learn to scratch letters in the sand and find ourselves cast out of the garden and into our own heads. Comprehension becomes a matter of interpretation and we are well on our way to the burning times; a long adolescence that stretches from the 13th through the 19th centuries. From the invention of the printing press to the total segmentation of mind and god, logic and morals, science and religion, through seven centuries of war and struggle, suppression, revolution and atrocity, the adolescent makes war upon the world in order to differentiate from it. Culture tears itself from culture while philosophy battles with desire 

Then comes the photograph and humanity is transfixed in its own shadow like a beast on the highway frozen in the headlights. Blink…Blink…Click …the Civil War…Blink…Click…World War One…Blink…Click…the Second…Click…Flash…the photographic age transfigured into the nuclear age…the colonial age replaced by the digital age…the age of pirates is swept aside by the age of programmers… 

We are lost in images…hopelessly confused by them. We live in urban containers where all reference to anything other than ourselves has been excised. We can no longer tell what is spirit and what is mirrored shadow. We no longer particularly care. Unlike previous empires that fell to conquest, our own culture dissolves into the sea of its own chaotic artifice.  

There is a moment in the Caribbean religion of Santeria when the presence of the god comes down to the worshipper to ‘ride’ them like a horse, displacing personality and taking over form, moving voice and body like a divine puppeteer. Santeria is a religion descended from Africa, made of sound and rhythms and dancing. When we dig down through the layers of representation and meaning that fill our lives and we contact the body of the earth there is something we discover that’s beneath our personalities and that unites us with everything. This is what I came to the Tank to discover. This is the secret within the sound.  

Relevant texts:

 

Odland, Bruce. 

        Leaving Eden. Arcadian Recordings, 1991

Stanwood, Michael. 

        Arc of a Buzz. Babyjane Records, 1999

Stanwood, Michael

         Portal, Pansy Productions, 2001