Month: August 2014

Trotsky was a rockist

“Boredom is just a slumber one can be roused from”

A piece of mine was published in The American Interest yesterday, in which I play the Tory anarchist music critic, reviewing Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!:

If you’ve ever seen the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train(1989), you’ve witnessed the whole of pop music criticism in microcosm, in the form of two Japanese tourists spending a night in Memphis while on a pilgrimage devoted to the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Mitsuko shows her boyfriend the “important discoveries” in her notebook, pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Madonna; like a parody of the stuffy, tenured Americanist and his archetypes, they all look like Elvis. In another scene they share a cigarette and Jun interrupts her musing about the King by declaring Carl Perkins better.

At the risk of vindicating one side or the other by comparison, the dynamic in this lovers’ quarrel is exactly the same in the contemporary version of this debate: the endless conversation between “rockists” and ”poptimists,” between deriders and defenders of commercial pop music. The latter lines up neatly with a modern culture at war with the notion of guilt or shame of any kind, even that incurred by something as small as a love of the lowbrow—a culture that encourages pride in philistinism. The former consists of people who suggest things like, “if you feel so guilty about it, maybe there’s a good reason.” Not for lack of honest critics trying to kill it, this dichotomy refuses to die, and as of April is still the subject of NPR features. As ever, it’s less about any particular artist than a proxy fight over opposing cultural and ideological commitments.

In a certain sense, the opposite of poptimism is what Trotsky called, the “protest against reality.” Elvis is still the model here, though where his various later iterations fall—like Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury, or Chris Isaak, who I’m sure are all in Mitsuko’s scrapbook and are well-covered by Stanley—is, I suppose, a matter of debate. And on down, too; Stanley identifies psychedelic music as the moment pop became about something other than dancing, or acid house, or punk as a class protest. One could make the case that all of them were “protests against reality” to some extent.

The trouble is that protests against reality have never been very difficult to sell, as Adorno and Horkheimer discovered six years after Trotsky wrote that. And today, now that economic conditions have caused the industry itself to register a sort of protest against reality—by advocating intellectual property regimes that would harm privacy and probably just wouldn’t work, among other things—we appear to have run into some serious confusion.


Conceptual Anarchy in Hinduism

“9.334. But to serve Brahmanas (who are) learned in the Vedas, householders, and famous (for virtue) is the highest duty of a Sudra, which leads to beatitude.” –Manu Smriti

“All your talk is of caste and creed

Is it even as natural as the spider and its web?

The four blessed Vedas, were they created by Brahma?

Is caste and creed worthwhile, ye elders of Paichalur?” -Uttiranallur Nagai


Hinduism is in a constant state of transformation through internal discourse and dissent. Image source.

(This post mostly consists of quotes from Manu Smriti and Medieval Hindu Bhakti poems, so if you want to skip my spiel just hit the “read more” link at the bottom.)

People in the west tend to have an odd outlook on the ethics or “doctrines” of Hinduism. In most religions, doctrine works something like this: There is a core text, or set of texts, which contain precepts. Early in the religion’s history some sages write commentaries on these. The rest of the reasoning and doctrine formation of the religion continues by referring to these sources for legitimacy. Innovations occur, but normally only if it can somehow be “textually justified.”

Certainly there is a part of the Hindu religion, which operates very similarly to this—the religion of the Brahmins. But Hinduism cannot be thought of as just that. It is the religion of all Indians, except perhaps those who explicitly decry the label, like the Buddhists, Jainsm and Sikhs (and even those divisions are sometimes blurry. Even some sects of Islam are pretty heavily syncretized.)


Four selections from Wyndham Lewis’s Rude Assignment

Feeling pretty accomplished in my beach reading this vacation; I finished Bend of the World, read Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men, Padgett Powell’s short but masterful Lost-Cause-as-senior-daydream novel, and plowed through most of Wyndham Lewis’s “intellectual autobiography” Rude Assignment. I’ve got  the Black Sparrow Press edition, which has six of Ezra Pound’s letters to Lewis regarding the work, which are very entertaining and some really great intellectual sparring. Anyway, here are some selections. On socialism as a bourgeois fad:

The worst blemish in the English character is not, as many people would have it, hypocrisy: it is that the Englishman is a congenital snob. This fact seems to me of importance to socialism — though I am often told it is not. Will the Englishman divest himself of his snobbery, as he passes over into the new social order: or will he take it with him — assuming, in its new environment, horrible and unexpected forms? Will the Stalin of England insist that he is of an awfully good family, and will it be high treason to remind him that his papa hawked fish in the New Cut? Will the shoddy genius of the Old School Tie go hand in hand with the British version of the Commissar?

There has been ‘Labour,’ but in England socialism has mostly existed as salon-socialism, up till now: a middleclass monopoly. I know and have met great numbers of socialists but only two or three issuing from the working-class. You would think that a young middleclass man, when he decided to dedicate himself to the emancipation of the working-class, would lay aside for good the old school tie, and with it the degrading emotions of idiot-pride in the not very interesting fact that his ‘people’ floated at a respectable middleclass distance above the gutter. You would think he would dump all that into the trash-can and try and be serious.

But this as a rule does not happen: among Popular Front acquaintances I have met with more straight social snobbery than anywhere else. Where one had thought only to find a passion for social justice, one so often discovers nothing but an unlovely little power-complex. Snob and socialist are not regarded as mutually exclusive terms in England. And this feudal atavism, or, as it usually is, hangover from the Servants-hall, has not been by any means confined to the small-fry. — When, many years ago, I met Prince Kropotkin, I detected no sign that he remembered that once he had been a prince. That he had left behind, along with his fortune, when he went into a most honourable exile. Perhaps this is easier for an aristocrat: it is easier to leave a great deal, possibly, than to turn your back upon something insignificant.


Being good is not political

Some, like Christopher Hitchens, hold Mother Teresa to be an icon of trite, consumer-ready humanitarianism. This is probably true, at least on some level. My disagreement is with what I perceive as political about this view; a distaste for elevating Mother Teresa above any given saint is because the sentimental modernity that is apparently inherent to the narrative of Mother Teresa. This doesn’t mean that her life of selfless love is less inspiring or worthy of honoring. The modern media’s infatuation is not the exaltation of maudlin sentimentality, but the sigh of a spiritually thirsty creature in the spiritual desert that we inhabit.

Seventy-three years ago today, a friar named Maximilian Kolbe died from a lethal injection in Auschwitz concentration camp as a result of taking the place of a husband and father who was condemned to death. Like Mother Teresa, he led a life of poverty and service to his fellow man. After becoming a political prisoner due to broadcasting opposition to Nazi atrocities via radio, he was taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. The escape of another prisoners came to the attention of camp authorities, and the punishment was to select ten men to be starved to death in a small bunker. When one men selected made it clear that he had a wife and kids that needed him, Maximilian offered to be killed in his place. The purpose of the punishment, destroy the spirit and dignity of those condemned, was defied. When the nine others had expired from starvation, Maximilian remained, and was given the fatal carbolic acid injection. This is a moment when uncompromising peace stood toe-to-toe with uncompromising violence and managed a Pyrrhic victory, which is pretty damn impressive considering the match history between the two.

What political alignment can fit the story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s life of and death? I don’t think that’s a meaningful question. Doing the right thing is a personal impetus, and any political element can only pollute it. So whether you’re a socialist, libertarian, feminist, nationalist, or anything else, the indomitable spirit of peace and love that we remember in this man is a message that transcends such divisions. The universal appeal doesn’t cheapen it, it speaks to the message’s peculiarly human truth.

Dispatches from the State of Jefferson

My family and I have a long-standing tradition of taking one summer road trip a year, and last week we took the opportunity to travel up to the good old State of Jefferson — because seriously, what’s better family fun than discussing political sovereignty and learning about new ways to kick off our government overlords? The only better way would have been a beach trip to Hawaii, but maybe next year.

Jokes aside, the primary reason we took the trip was to see the beautiful scenery of northern California, and we only visited one county — the largest one, Siskiyou — included in the proposed 51st state. I didn’t attend any official State of Jefferson meetings or converse with any of the movement’s leaders; in fact I mostly just talked to average people we happened to stumble across. Nevertheless, the trip provided me with some experiences I’ll never forget, cemented an unshakeable allegiance in my heart to the people of Siskiyou county, and taught me more about what’s at stake for supporters of the State of Jefferson movement than anything else possibly could have.

Let me start off by saying something blunt about the initial disappointments of the trip. Sorry, J. Arthur Bloom, but if you were to take the pulse of the Jefferson movement by a visit to Yreka alone, you’d come away thinking it was deader than dead. Yreka was the first stop on our destination, chosen because it seemed to be the historic focal point of statehood-related activities. After all, this is the place where it all started, when a group of gallant young men decided to hold up Highway 99 declaring that they would “secede each Thursday until further notice.” It is also where Judge John C. Childs was inaugurated (with bears and all) as interim governor of Jefferson in 1941. One would think this would be the place with the greatest passion and fervor of all.

Of the locals I talked to here, I got the feeling that most of them thought of the statehood movement as akin to something like a “Keep Austin Weird” campaign; a novel piece of regional heritage which can be fun to celebrate—certainly something you can sell shirts over—but an idea which is, at bottom, more of a dream of outsiders than an impending reality. And to my surprise, as I walked the town, I found nothing much more serious than stores selling ‘official merchandise.’ Yreka’s museum, which was otherwise very extensive, housed not a single exhibit on the famous story of 1941; even the courthouse where Childs once walked was empty. The annual Siskiyou Golden Fair, which just happened to be going on at the time, was the only place that proved fruitful in my search for secessionist enthusiasm. It was here that I found a Tea Party booth proudly flying the double crosses and offering a raffle for a houseboat vacation (which are apparently the new militia movement).

The thing about Tea Parties, as many have pointed out, is that they’re different wherever you go. And this one certainly wasn’t of the Jenny Beth Martin flavor. As I picked up a Jefferson Backroads magazine sitting on the table, the man at the booth seemed more anxious to hand me another, much more radical, pamphlet; a pamphlet created by Anthony Intiso, a man who’s put on his big boy pants and left the sandbox by proposing a completely independent Republic of Jefferson, instead of merely a new state. Intiso used to think that statehood would be fine, until he recognized what should be glaringly obvious: becoming a new state under an unconstitutional federal system “puts you right back where you started. You may think you’ve gained some freedom—and you may have to a certain extent,certain extent on a state–California — basis, but not from the federal government, because you can’t be a state in that system without adhering to their rules.”

This is a legitimate criticism and we’ll get back to it later, but in the meantime leftists and distributists should know, in case the Tea Party label scares them, that there’s something for everyone here. Intiso’s group, for example, is strongly anti-corporate, and he seems to have even bought into a wacky conspiracy theory which holds that the entity we call the state is literally just a giant private corporation. A little rough around the edges, but hey, he’s got character. Purple up his prose a bit and it sounds like it’s straight out of Tate and Agar’s classic Who Owns America? I’ll take him! (more…)