Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Al Green Sends You L.O.V.E Love for 2014

How to send you into the New Year with extremely positive vibes? By sharing again with you this video of the Reverend Al Green performing "L.O.V.E. (Love)" on Soul Train sometime in the 70s. I first posted a link to this in April, but it's too good not to share again. Play it loud and feel it, my sisters and brothers. And pass it on to others.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What Do We Mean By Peace?

Sometimes it seems like it's not worth using the word 'peace' when I talk about my work at a peace and dialogue center in Cambridge. The word conjures up notions of naivete and purism that can trigger a bit of skepticism. Yet, we persist in using the word, since it does signify a state of personal and social well being worth striving for. Some distinctions are in order though.

1. The work in pursuit of peace is not built on utopian, fairy tale scenarios but rather on the idea that "what exists is possible." That is to say, we have powerful examples of actual peace building and harmony everywhere we look. In fact, most of life is more expressive of peace and cooperation than it is of the opposite. If it were not the case, we wouldn't be here.

2. Similarly, our work toward peace is not powered by wishful thinking, optimism, or even hopefulness. Rather, it is powered by our faith in the possibility or potential for greater harmony and flourishing. It might not happen, but improvement in this direction is not impossible. And since that is the case, we have an obligation to move things in that direction, each of us, in our own way.

3. Peace doesn't mean homogeneity, the absence of conflict, or even in all cases the complete absence of violence. Picture the United States. We are fundamentally a peaceful society. Most violence falls under the category of crime and crime fighting. Despite the harsh divisions in our country, the divisions are mostly not manifested in violence, but rather in the form of what Andrew Sullivan calls a "cultural cold war." We must do more to heal our divisions, but we are a long way from the violence that characterizes the internal affairs of many countries. Could we envision a world that functions about as well as the U.S. does? I think so. Clearly religious fanaticism coupled with extreme economic inequality creates a volatile stew. But thinking about the issue this way helps us think about peace in non-purist tones.

4. Nonviolent action and dialogue are the surest ways to create improved social conditions that will actually last. But we acknowledge that some situations have gone so far that violence is needed to halt aggression and suffering. What we need to do is to keep expanding civil society and civil institutions to the point where they can preempt some conflicts, and squeeze out some others.

5. Many people don't use the word peace, preferring to speak instead of the actual conditions of human flourishing, such as the presence of justice, health, and economic viability for the vast majority of the world's peoples. I still like the word peace though; it gives us something to aspire to.

Hugh Masekela: "Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)"

The video of the year is not from Macklemore, JT, or Bruno Mars. Not from Lorde, Katy Perry, or Taylor Swift. No, it's footage of Hugh Masekela performing his joyous and beautiful Nelson Mandela tribute, "Bring Him Back Home," many years ago at Paul Simon's "Graceland" concert. Imprisoned when the song was written, Mandela did come home to Soweto. Now he has gone further home, to the source of righteousness and love that undergirds and ennobles our existence.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Time for Proust

During the holiday season many of us carve out some time for literary classics. In my case, I spent last weekend with Marcel Proust's massive In Search of Lost Time, formerly titled in translation, Remembrance of Things Past. Just to clarify: I didn't actually read it. I used it to press down some loose bathroom floor tiles that needed to be re-glued. Worked like a champ!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Truth & Beauty #2: Dying Stars

Slate has a terrific gallery up this week featuring the best astronomy and space photos of 2013. Why are the processes of nature unfailingly beautiful? Do our conceptions of beauty flow not from human-constructed aesthetics but from existence itself?

Slate science writer Phil Plait tells us about the image shown here:
When stars die, they do it in style. This is NGC 5189, a glowing gas cloud seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. At the center is a white dwarf, the remains of what was once a star probably about twice the mass of the Sun. As it ran out of fuel, it expelled huge quantities of gas into space, exposing its dense core. White hot, spinning rapidly and possessed of a killer magnetic field, the white dwarf spewed out twin jets of energy and matter from its poles, energizing the surrounding material. However, the star is wobbling, so these lighthouse-like beams appear to carve out a gigantic S shape in the star’s former outer layers. At least, we think that’s what’s happening: This object isn’t completely understood, though that’s is the most likely explanation for this dramatic and lovely object.
View my first Truth & Beauty post: "Brainbows."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bryan Ferry Sings Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love"

Who knew that Bryan Ferry, he of New Wave, Roxy Music fame, was one the greatest interpreters of Bob Dylan songs? I did, and now you do, too. "Make You Feel My Love" is a later Dylan song (1997) that has joined the ranks of his most covered songs ever. Check out Ferry's full album of Dylan covers, Dylanesque.

Never Too Late

Observant readers will notice the new look for Art & Argument: lighter and cleaner. I was never completely happy with the old look, which had an old-fashioned textured look. Why didn't I change it earlier? Maybe because changing it would have drawn attention to the fact that the previous look wasn't working as well as I wanted it to. Maybe because I felt I that I had gone too far down that particular path to change.

Some of the best advice I ever encountered was that we limit our growth when we say it's too late to change or try new things. It sounds like a simple idea, but the "too late" brand of self talk is probably more pervasive than we think. The truth is that, barring certain physical or material limitations, it really is never too late to change or grow.

The changes can be minor or major, but they have the same salutary impact upon our sense of well being and confidence. On the minor side, I just grew a beard and feel energized by the change. I'd wanted to do it for quite a while, but kept saying to myself that it's too late, since the beard trend has been happening for quite a few years now. If I grew a beard now I would look like a follower, I thought. Wrong.

On the more serious side, I didn't get married or go to graduate school until I was in my early 30s. I was one of the older grad students in my masters programs, but not the oldest. I was in fact so far removed from academia that I could barely recall how to structure an essay, but I learned quick enough. And the overall energizing impact of that intense endeavor was strong. It made me young! As for marriage, well, 23 years into it, it matters not at all when it began. It wasn't too late at all.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pablo Neruda: The Separate Rose

These lines are from Pablo Neruda's work The Separate Rose, inspired by the poet's visit to Easter Island in 1971 (translation by William O'Daly). With Pope Francis spurring us to consider anew what Catholicism in particular, and religion in general, is actually for and what it could be, Neruda's reflections resonate.


They taught us to respect the church,
not to cough, not to spit in the atrium,
not to wash our clothes upon the alter,
but it's not so: life tears apart religions,
and on this island the Wind God inhabits
the only church living and true:
our lives come and go, dying, making love:
here on Easter Island where everything is alter,
where everything is a workroom for the unknown,
a woman nurses her newborn
upon the same steps that her gods tread.

Here, they live! But do we?
We transients, followers of the wrong star,
were shipwrecked on this island as in a lagoon,
like in a lake in which all distances end,
on a motionless journey, so difficult for men.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Finales


I was in the definite minority earlier this year when I was not a big fan of the series finale of Breaking Bad, a show I watched with great engagement through its many years. The thing with these serialized shows is that the writers and producers are making it up as they go, making choices on the fly about what direction a character or dramatic thread might take. This is unlike a feature film where the whole thing is mapped out and early scenes can foreshadow the conclusions or meanings the filmmaker is intending from the start.

In the case of Breaking Bad, the creators went down a path I just wasn't into, playing up and even celebrating Walt as The Smartest Guy In the Room. And one of the ways they did this was to have Walt excel at boy fantasies of whiz bang contraptions and stunts. This shark got jumped when they pulled off the daring railroad swap of liquids in the previous season. It was followed by Jesse's magnet stunt and culminated with Walt's rigging of the rapid fire machine gun in the trunk that, miraculously, went off without a hitch and killed all the right people. The fact that most people loved the ending shows that they were heavily invested in Smart Guy Walt.

Me, I wished Walt would have stayed on that bar stool in New Hampshire and waited for the police, realizing that having lost the respect of his son there was no point in continuing down his delusional path. Walt's arrest could have been followed by a fifteen minute denouement back in New Mexico where Walt faces the devastating impact of his deeply misguided actions. Or failing that, when Walt confessed to Skylar that he "did it for himself," she could have responded with a slow hand clap, saying "I hope that made you feel better, but you still ruined everything that mattered, you prick." Or failing that, Walt's machine gun trick could have killed Jesse. I was interested in some consequences.

By comparison, the season finale of Homeland played out in a way that I appreciated. Many did not share my opinion. They wanted to see a cliff hanger ending, which is exactly what I did not want to see. I'd had enough of Carrie's stunts, and as Brody was headed for execution I was afraid that the writers would have Carrie do something amazing (like Walt would have done) to free him or something. To me, Brody's execution was emotionally satisfying because it was the only way that he could change the narrative around himself in a way that might bring his family a measure of relief. And, in fact, they used the denouement structure that I wish BB had used. Of course, along the way we had to suspend our disbelief as Saul is presented as single-handedly bringing peace to the Middle East, a thread that might have been a deal breaker for others. And so it goes.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Try It Without the Spacesuit

NOTE: This blog-style mini-essay was composed a few years ago (2006), but I've always liked it and thought it would make a good addition to Art & Argument.

Don't interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
He says, "We walked on the moon
You be polite"

- Joni Mitchell

I've had Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns on steady rotation in the car for a while now. "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" is my favorite cut, a rumination on our unbalanced world, one tragically fixated on the masculine principles or energies at the expense of the feminine, also known in Jungian terms as the anima. The couplet above captures perfectly the petty arrogance and entitlement that accrues from technological mastery and domination, which, when devoid of wisdom, amounts, at best, to mere tinkering, and at worst, devastation.

As will happen when listening closely to verse, I started thinking between the lines, and it occurred to me: We actually didn't walk on the moon, did we? No human skin touched the surface. The space suit was a prophylactic that voided consummation.

Written in the 70s, the song captures the tone of the White House, circa 2006.* We are protecting you. Be polite. We brought democracy to Iraq. Be polite. But wait a second. What kind of democracy requires a massive military occupation to function? Without our troops, Iraqi democracy would thrive as long as a naked man would strolling on the moon. Do it without the spacesuit, and then let's talk.

* Ed. With strong echoes in the White House circa 2013.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Against Tanking

I'm completing my first full calendar year of blogging, and I figured I should at least do one post about sports, especially since I spend a lot of time (too much time my wife might argue) following Boston's pro sports teams. My favorite is the Celtics, and I even enjoying watching them in this rebuilding year following the trading of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn.

The Cs are a rapidly improving team, and I've got no use at all for those who think we should tank in order to obtain a highly coveted draft pick. First of all, you can tank and not even get the first one or two picks. And all you've done in the process is teach your guys how to be losers. This bodes ill for the future of the franchise. Plus, when your guys fight hard and improve they have much higher value on the trading market. Finally, our new coach, Brad Stevens, is much too talented to squander his gifts on a tanking team.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Which Unintended Consequences?

I suppose there's no point at this stage of the game than to identify myself as anything other than a liberal. Nevertheless, I truly appreciate the core conservative critique that the nobility of our intentions does not necessarily justify the harmful, concrete consequences that might happen to living, breathing people in pursuit of our lofty goals. In a way, this is the meaning behind "First, do no harm."

So with the implementation of Obamacare/ACA, conservatives have drawn attention to the fact that some people are probably going to end up with worse insurance. One can say that this is a small price to pay for the greater benefit to society, which I basically, if hesitantly, agree with. However, I wouldn't want to be the one to go to someone's door and tell them that their well being will take a hit on society's behalf. When we depersonalize negative consequences we fall into the trap of collecting these results under the value-neutral category of collateral damage.

Conservatives pledge fealty to the market economy because it could be the best system yet for raising living conditions on a wide scale. It's not perfect, but don't mess with it, the thinking goes. We saw how centralized command economies failed under communism. And yet ... yet: Is it not an unintended consequence of the market economy that we might destroy our planet? Is it not an unintended consequence of our current healthcare system that many millions can't receive the medical attention they need? No humane conservative wants these things to happen, but they do.

So, what I'm saying is that I don't have an answer. As with all things, balance and adjustment must be ongoing. But it does appear to me that liberals are not the only ones accepting unintended consequences that harm real people.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Great & Timeless El Greco

Whenever I visit the Boston MFA or other museums with historical masterworks I like most of all to view the paintings of Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541 - 1614), known to us as El Greco. Something about the colors he uses and the way he distorts the figures looks incredibly modern to me. I feel like his works could have been painted last week, at least insofar as the visual aesthetic goes. And in fact he was a big influence on important modernists such as Picasso and Franz Marc. His passionate religiosity and piety are not so contemporary. Here are some images.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

So Long "Mozart Effect"

Interesting story in the Boston Globe this week about how Harvard researchers have shown that the celebrated "Mozart effect" isn't provable. Listening to lots of Mozart and other music won't make a kid "smarter" in any objective sense.

Says researcher Samuel Mehr:
We teach [students] great authors because those great authors are important. There's no reason to justify music education on any other basis than its intrinsic merits. We have our Dante, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and they are Bach, Duke Ellington, and Benjamin Britten.
I've always felt it was a strategic mistake to make the case for the arts based on supposed pragmatic benefits. And now that those benefits are seen as chimerical, what will become of the arts funding apportioned because of the "makes you smarter" argument?

The same pitfall holds for two other sociopolitical issues with medical or scientific overtones: homosexuality and marijuana. Arguing for acceptance and equal rights for gay people on the basis of "the gay gene" is just another way of saying that they are screwed up, but just can't help it. The real point is that consenting adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want and shouldn't be denied rights on that basis. And what if the gay gene exists? Would we eliminate it if we could? To be clear: I'm not saying people aren't "born that way." I'm saying it doesn't matter.

Similarly, arguing for the legalization of medical marijuana misses the point that, again, adults should be able to do what they want as long as they don't harm others. The medical angle is a thin rationale that just keeps us from becoming grown ups.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reggae Beyond Bob Marley: A Subjective Guide


I was involved in the reggae scene in Denver in the 80s, and that was a great period for the art form. Reggae blossomed in Jamaica during the 70s, but by the following decade there was a global scene, with a lot of action coming out of England. This guide will touch on a few of the great singers and bands that flourished then, and is intended as an aid and encouragement to those of you who have been lead to believe, erroneously, that reggae begins and ends with Bob Marley's Greatest Hits, a truly great record that, tragically, has morphed into classy elevator music.

Gregory Isaacs
The late master of what is known as lover's rock went easy on the Rastafarian mumbo jumbo and focused instead on a sensuous and elegant sound. He is my favorite reggae singer, a vocal stylist par excellence, sort of a reggae analog to someone like Merle Haggard. He didn't just do love songs, though. He could do some pretty good political stuff addressing the empty materialism of Babylon. I like his collection of early cuts called Looking Back, the classic Night Nurse, and the sleeper More Gregory, featuring the Roots Radics as his band.

Alpha Blondy
Born in the Cote d'Ivoire, Alpha Blondy is a major figure in pan-African and internationalist reggae, creating his own fusion that is clearly reggae but so much more. He's multilingual and sings in English, French, Hebrew, and Arabic. He is also a charismatic performer, a serious lyricist, and his bands totally smoke. I like Jerusalem and Elohim, but he's a consistent artist.

This British band also goes light on Rastafarianism and blends pop and R & B elements into their sound. Case in point, their shimmering cover of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)" on their very strong record of 1984, Rebel Souls. That record also features a swinging cover of Toots Hibbert's "54-46 Was My Number." The other great bands of the time were the UK's Steel Pulse and Kingston's Black Uhuru.

Linton Kwesi Johnson
Another British artist, Johnson is the master of the form known as dub poetry. This style runs parallel to the development of rap in the US. LKJ talks his poetry over the pumping rhythms of his group, The Dub Band. Not Rastafarian in the least, his lyrics feature leftist politics and vigorous denunciations of the racist and fascist segments that arose in 1980s England. Is this like eating kale? It's not. Be assured this is grooving and upbeat music. One good way to get an overview is 1985's In Concert With the Dub Band. All his early records are classics.

Burning Spear
Is Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, the greatest reggae artist of all? That case can be made. Rastafarian, but not overtly so, he's a "back to Africa" guy whose songs recall the pain of colonialism in songs like Slavery Days and pay tribute to the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The instrumental backing and rhythms are bone deep -- marrow deep -- some of the best examples of the stripped down aesthetic of dub. His singing consists of chants, incantations, and exhortations, creating a trance-like, meditative vibe. When he asks, "Do you remember the days of slavery?" you know it's important that we do. It's appropriate that his 1979 collection was called Harder Than the Best.

Ska & Roots Reggae
The precursor of reggae was ska. More uptempo than reggae, the ska revival of the early 80s coincided with the rise of punk and New Wave in the US and UK, and it's influence was everywhere, especially in groups like the English Beat and Madness and the Police. You can access great ska through general collections like Intensified Ska or the Ska-talites compilation Foundation Ska. Ska is also jazzier than reggae, with horn players stretching out. After ska came roots reggae, best exemplified by Jimmy Cliff's soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come, as well as the soundtrack to the movie Rockers. Desmond Dekker is a great artist of this period, the sweetest period of all.

Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer joined Bob Marley in the original Wailers, and were important artists in their own right. Augustus Pablo and Lee "Scratch" Perry were important dub artists. Sly and Robbie were the go-to rhythm section in the 70s and 80s. I could go on, but at this point I'll point you to the Reggae section at AllMusic.com.

May you always feel irie, mon.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Musicians Who Paint #2: Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney, Unspoken Words, 1994, 121.5 x 121.5 cm.

Paul McCartney is a ridiculously talented musician (understatement) and a pretty good painter. He learned from Willem de Kooning when they were friends and neighbors out in the Hamptons.

View the previous installment of Musicians Who Paint: Joni Mitchell