Thursday, September 30, 2004

John Kerry has a golden opportunity before him tonight. By establishing such regal restrictions on this debate in the form of prohibiting either of the candidates to the highest office in the land from speaking to or approaching each other, Bush has opened the door for a discussion of his isolation from the ideals of democracy and his more kingly aspirations. Kerry should not just mention these restrictions (in plain and simple language, please, John), but also discuss the loyalty oaths Bush requires of those blessed few who may see him in person, the so-called "Free Speech Areas" far away from His Shrubness in which dissenters are shunted from His delicate sensibilities, and Bush's often-mentioned unwillingness to read newspapers for himself.

Don't blow it, John. Nail that sumbitch to the wall.

Last night, I was reading H.L. Mencken's essay "The National Letters" (1920), in which he rips through what he perceived as the vacuity of American Literature, and the lack of a real American Novel. If I remember correctly, Melville was still languishing in obscurity at that point, so I can cut Mencken some slack there.

Anyway, towards the end of the essay, Mencken digresses (well, okay, he follows declares the cause of the vacuity of American Literature to be a lack of a true aristocracy) into an absolutely brilliant and scathing indictment of the powerful plutocrats with their grubby fingers at the reigns of this democracy. Check it out (and try mentally substituting "muslim" for "Red" and "Al Qaeda" for "Bolsheviki"):

So far, the disease. As to the cause, I have delivered a few hints. I now describe it particularly. It is, in brief, a defect in the general culture of the country - one reflected, not only in the national literature, but also in the national political theory, the national attitude toward religion and morals, the national habit in all departments of thinking. It is the lack of a civilized aristocracy, secure in its position, animated by an intelligent curiosity, skeptical of all facile generalizations, superior to the sentimentality of the mob, and delighting in the battle of ideas for its own sake.

The word I use, despite the qualifying adjective, has got itself such meanings, of course, that I by no means intend to convey. Any mention of an aristocracy, to a public fed upon democratic fustian, is bound to bring up images of stockbrokers' wives lolling obscenely in opera boxes, or of haughty Englishmen slaughtering whole generations of grouse in an inordinate and incomprehensible manner, or of Junkers with tight waists elbowing American schoolmarms off the sidewalks of German beer towns, or of perfumed Italians coming over to work their abominable magic upon the daughters of breakfast-food and bathtub kings. Part of this misconception, I suppose, has its roots in the gaudy imbecilities of the yellow press, but there is also a part that belongs to the general American tradition, along with the oppression of minorities and the belief in political panaceas. Its depth and extent are constantly revealed by the naïve assumption that the so-called fashionable folk of the large cities - chiefly wealthy industrials in the interior-decorator and country-club stage of culture - constitute an aristocracy, and by the scarcely less remarkable assumption that the peerage of England is identical with the gentry - that is, that such men as Lord Northcliffe, Lord Iveagh, and even Lord Reading are English gentlemen, and of the ancient line of the Percys.

Here, as always, the worshiper is the father of the gods, and no less when they are evil than when they are benign. The inferior man must find himself superiors, that he may marvel at his political equality with them, and in the absence of recognizable superiors de facto he creates superiors de jure. The sublime principle of one man, one vote must be translated into terms of dollars, diamonds, fashionable intelligence; the equality of all men before the law must have clear and dramatic proofs. Sometimes, perhaps, the thing goes further and is more subtle. The inferior man needs an aristocracy to demonstrate not only his mere equality, but also his actual superiority. The society columns in the newspaper may have some such origin: they may visualize once more the accomplished journalist's understanding of the mob mind that he plays upon so skillfully, as upon some immense and cacophonic organ, always going fortissimo. What the inferior man and his wife see in the sinister revels of those amazing first families, I suspect, is often a massive witness to their own higher rectitude - to their relative innocence of cigarette-smoking, poodle-coddling, child-farming and the more abstruse branches of adultery - in brief, to their firmer grasp upon the immutable axioms of Christian virtue, the one sound boast of the nether nine-tenths of humanity in every land under the cross.

But this bugaboo aristocracy, as I hint, is actually bogus, and the evidence of its bogusness lies in the fact that it is insecure. One gets into it only onerously, but out of it very easily. Entrance is effected by dint of a long a bitter struggle, and the chief incidents of that struggle are almost intolerable humiliations. The aspirant must school and steel himself to sniffs and sneers; he must see the door slammed upon him a hundred times before it is ever thrown open to him. To get in at all he must show a talent for abasement - and abasement makes him timorous. Worse, that timorousness is not cured when he succeeds at last. On the contrary, it is made even more tremulous, for what he faces within the gates is a scheme of things made up almost wholly of harsh and often unintelligible taboos, and the penalty for violating even the least of them is swift and disastrous. He must exhibit exactly the right social habits, appetites and prejudices, public and private. He must harbor exactly the right political enthusiasms and indignations. He must have a hearty taste for exactly the right sports. His attitude toward the fine arts must be properly tolerant and yet not a shade too eager. He must read and like exactly the right books, pamphlets and public journals. He must put up at the right hotels when he travels. His wife must patronize the right milliners. He himself must stick to the right haberdashery. He must live in the right neighborhood. He must even embrace the right doctrines of religion. It would ruin him, for all opera box and society column purposes, to set up a plea for justice to the Bolsheviki, or even for ordinary decency. It would ruin him equally to wear celluloid collars, or to move to Union Hill, NJ, or to serve ham and cabbage at his table. And it would ruin him, too, to drink coffee from his saucer, or to marry a chambermaid with a gold tooth, or to join the Seventh Day Adventists. Within the boundaries of his curious order he is worse fettered than a monk in a cell. Its obscure notion of propriety, its nebulous notion that this or that is honorable, hampers him in every direction, and very narrowly. What he resigns when he enters, even when he makes his first deprecating knock at the door, is every right to attack the ideas that happen to prevail within. Such as they are, he must accept them without question. And as they shift and change in response to great instinctive movements (or perhaps, now and then, to the punished but not to be forgotten revolts of extraordinary rebels) he must shift and change with them, silently and quickly. To hang back, to challenge and dispute, to preach reforms and revolutions - these are crimes against the brummagem Holy Ghost of the order.

Obviously, that order cannot constitute a genuine aristocracy, in any rational sense. A genuine aristocracy is grounded upon very much different principles. Its first and most salient character is its interior security, and the chief visible evidence of that security is the freedom that goes with it - not only freedom to act, the divine right of the aristocrat to do what he jolly well pleases, so long as he does not violate the primary guarantees and obligations of his class, but also and more importantly freedom of thought, the liberty to try and err, the right to be his own man. It is the instinct of a true aristocracy, not to punish eccentricity by expulsion, but to throw a mantle of protection around it - to safeguard it from the suspicions and resentments of the lower orders. Those lower orders are inert, timid, inhospitable to ideas, hostile to changes, faithful to a few maudlin superstitions. All progress goes on at the higher levels. It is there that salient personalities, made secure by artificial immunities, may oscillate most widely from the normal track. It is within that entrenched fold, out of reach of the immemorial certainties of the mob, that extraordinary men of the lower orders may find their city of refuge, and breathe the clean air. This, indeed, is at once the hall-mark and the justification of an aristocracy - that it is beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions. It is nothing if it is not autonomous, curious, venturesome, courageous, and everything if it is. It is the custodian of the qualities that make for change and experiment; it is the class that organizes danger to the service of the race; it pays for its high prerogatives by standing in the forefront of the fray.

No such aristocracy, it must be plain, is now on view in the United States. The makings of one were visible in the Virginia of the later eighteenth century, but with Jefferson and Washington the promise died. In New England, it seems to me, there never was any aristocracy, either in being or in nascency: there was only a theocracy that degenerated very quickly into a plutocracy on the one hand and a caste of sterile Gelehrten on the other - the passion for God splitting into a lust for dollars and a weakness for mere words. Despite the common notion to the contrary - a notion generated by confusing literacy with intelligence - New England has never shown the slightest sign of a genuine enthusiasm for ideas. It began its history as a slaughter-house for ideas, and it is to-day not easily distinguishable from a cold-storage plant. Its celebrated adventures in mysticism, once apparently so bold and significant, are now seen to have been little more than an elaborate hocus-pocus - respectable Unitarians shocking the peasantry and scaring the horned cattle in the fields by masquerading in the robes of Rosicrucians. The ideas that it embraced in those austere and far-off days were stale, and when it had finished with them they were dead: to-day one hears of Jakob Bohme almost as rarely as one hears of Allen G Thurman. So in politics. Its glory is Abolition - an English invention, long under the interdict of the native plutocracy. Since the Civil War its six states have produced fewer political ideas, as political ideas run in the Republic, than any average county in Kansas or Nebraska. Appomattox seemed to be a victory for New England idealism. It was actually a victory for the New England plutocracy, and that plutocracy has dominated thought above the Housatonic ever since. The sect of professional idealists has so far dwindled that it has ceased to be of any importance, even as an opposition. When the plutocracy is challenged now, it is challenged by the proletariat.

Well, what is on view in New England is on view in all other parts of the nation, sometimes with ameliorations, but usually with the colors merely exaggerated. What one beholds, sweeping the eye over the land, is a culture that, like the national literature, is in three layers - the plutocracy on top, a vast mass of undifferentiated human blanks at the bottom, and a forlorn intelligentsia gasping out a precarious life between. I need not set out at any length, I hope, the intellectual deficiencies of the plutocracy - its utter failure to show anything even remotely resembling the makings of an aristocracy. It is badly educated, it is stupid, it is full of low-caste superstitions and indignations, it is without decent traditions or informing vision; above all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the most elemental independence and courage. Out of this class comes the grotesque fashionable society of our big towns, already described. Imagine a horde of peasants incredibly enriched and with almost infinite power thrust into their hands, and you will have a fair picture of its habitual state of mind. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority - moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear. Never did it function more revealingly than in the late pogrom against the so-called Reds, i.e., against humorless idealists who, like Andrew Jackson, took the platitudes of democracy quite seriously. The machinery brought to bear against these feeble and scattered fanatics would have almost sufficed to repel an invasion by the united powers of Europe. They were hunted out of their sweat-shops and coffee-houses as if they were so many Carranzas or Ludendorffs, dragged to jail to the tooting of horns, arraigned before quaking judges on unintelligible charges, condemned to deportation without the slightest chance to defend themselves, herded into prison-ships, and then finally dumped in a snow waste, to be rescued and fed by the Bolsheviki. And what was the theory at the bottom of all these astounding proceedings? So far as it can be reduced to comprehensible terms it was much less a theory than a fear - a shivering, idiotic, discreditable fear of a mere banshee - an overpowering, paralyzing dread that some extra-eloquent Red, permitted to emit his balderdash unwhipped, might eventually convert a couple of courageous men, and that the courageous men, filled with indignation against the aristocracy, might take to the highroad, burn down a nail-factory or two, and slit the throat of some virtuous profiteer. In order to lay this fear, in order to ease the jangled nerves of the American successors to the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns, all the constitutional guarantees of the citizen were suspended, the statute-books were burdened with laws that surpass anything ever heard of in the Austria of Maria Theresa, the country was handed over to a frenzied mob of detectives, informers and agents provocateurs - and the Reds departed laughing loudly, and were hailed by the Bolsheviki as innocents escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane.

Obviously, it is out of reason to look for any hospitality to ideas in a class so extravagantly fearful of even the most palpably absurd of them. Its philosophy is firmly grounded upon the thesis that the existing order must stand forever free from attack, and not only from attack, but also from mere academic criticism, and its ethics are as firmly grounded upon the thesis that every attempt at any such criticism is a proof of moral turpitude. Within its own ranks, protected by what may be regarded as the privilege of the order, there is nothing to take the place of this criticism. A few feeble platitudes by Andrew Carnegie and a book of moderate merit by John D Rockefeller's press-agent constitute almost the whole of the interior literature of ideas. In other countries the plutocracy has often produced men of reflective and analytical habit, eager to rationalize its instincts and to bring it into some sort of relationship to the main streams of human thought. The case of David Ricardo at once comes to mind. There have been many others: John Bright, Richard Cobden, George Grote, and, in our own time, Walther von Rathenau. But in the United States no such phenomenon has been visible. There was a day, not long ago, when certain young men of wealth gave signs of an unaccustomed interest in ideas on the political side, but the most they managed to achieve was a banal sort of Socialism, and even this was abandoned in sudden terror when the war came, and Socialism fell under suspicion of being genuinely international - in brief, of being honest under the skin. Nor has the plutocracy of the country ever fostered an inquiring spirit among its intellectual valets and footmen, which is to say, among the gentlemen who compose headlines and leading articles for its newspapers. What chiefly distinguishes the daily press of the United States from the press of all other countries pretending to culture is not its lack of truthfulness or even its lack of dignity and honor, but its incurable fear of ideas, its constant effort to evade the discussion of fundamentals by translating all issues into a few elemental fears, its incessant reduction of all reflection to mere emotion. It is, in the true sense, never well-informed. It is seldom intelligent, save in the arts of the mob-master. It is never courageously honest. Held harshly to a rigid correctness of opinion by the plutocracy that controls it with less and less attempt at disguise, and menaced on all sides by censorships that it dare not flout, it sinks rapidly into formalism and feebleness. Its yellow section is perhaps its most respectable section for there the only vestige of the old free journalist survives. In the more conservative papers one finds only a timid and petulant animosity to all questioning of the existing order, however urbane and sincere - a pervasive and ill-concealed dread that the mob now heated up against the orthodox hobgoblins may suddenly begin to unearth hobgoblins of its own, and so run amok. For it is upon the emotions of the mob, of course, that the whole comedy is played. Theoretically the mob is the repository of all political wisdom and virtue; actually it is the ultimate source of all political power. Even the plutocracy cannot make war upon it openly, or forget the least of its weaknesses. The business of keeping it in order must be done discreetly, warily, with delicate technique. In the main that business consists of keeping alive its deep-seated fears - of strange faces, of unfamiliar ideas, of unhackneyed gestures, of untested liberties and responsibilities. The one permanent emotion of the inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear - fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants beyond everything else is safety. His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him at all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind - against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based. Content under kaiserism so long as it functions efficiently, he turns, when kaiserism fails, to some other and perhaps worse form of paternalism, bringing to its benign tyranny only the docile tribute of his pathetic allegiance. In America it is the newspaper that is his boss. From it he gets support for his elemental illusions. In it he sees a visible embodiment of his own wisdom and consequence. Out of it he draws fuel for his simple moral passion, his congenital suspicion of heresy, his dread of the unknown. And behind the newspaper stands the plutocracy, ignorant, unimaginative and timorous.

Thus at the top and the bottom. Obviously, there is no aristocracy here. One finds only one of the necessary elements, and that only in the plutocracy, to wit, a truculent egoism. But where is intelligence? Where are ease and surety of manner? Where are enterprise and curiosity? Where, above all, is courage, and in particular, moral courage - the capacity for independent thinking, for what Nietzsche called the joys of the labyrinth? As well look for these things in a society of half-wits. Democracy, obliterating the old aristocracy, has left only a vacuum in its place; in a century and a half it has failed either to lift up the mob to intellectual autonomy and dignity or to purge the plutocracy of its inherent stupidity and swinishness. It is precisely here, the first and favorite scene of the Great Experiment, that the culture of the individual has been reduced to the most rigid and absurd regimentation. It is precisely here, of all civilized countries, that eccentricity in demeanor and opinion has come to bear the heaviest penalties. The whole drift of our law is toward the absolute prohibition of all ideas that diverge in the slightest from the accepted platitudes, and behind that drift of law there is a far more potent force of growing custom, and under that custom there is a national philosophy which erects conformity into the noblest of virtues and the free functioning of personality into a capital crime against society.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

One of my favorite web discoveries, courtesy Fluxblog, is a detailed breakdown of the first half (so far) of the Fiery Furnaces' brilliant Blueberry Boat album at Clap Clap Blog.


1. Quay Cur

2. Straight Street

3. Blueberry Boat

4. Chris Michaels

5. Paw Paw Tree

6. I Lost My Dog (But Now He's Found)

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The ACL Fest crowd on Saturday, courtesy Dutcher.

Monday, September 20, 2004


Austin City Limits Fest day one:
· Blind Boys of Alabama. Excellent. It took time to convince my wife that it wasn't pre-recorded music.
· Neko Case. Yummy, and covered in length elsewhere.
· Broken Social Scene. I'd heard good things but hadn't actually heard them before. Spacemen 3-style stoner music meets early 80s jangle pop, a la the db's. About a million guys on stage. I didn't realize that this type of music is so popular with the kids of today, but they were out in force. I probably won't be buying any albums soon, but it was a pleasant way to pass the afternoon.
· Toots and the Maytals. Damn fucking right.

During the T&tM set, about 150,000 people suddenly crowded around us, with today's stoned youth pushing at our chairs and stepping on our backpacks. Seriously, that was about as claustrophobic as I've ever felt in the open air. We left, fighting crowd all the way to the exit. I think they must have decided the number of tickets to sell based on the idea of 5 people per square foot. I don't need to see Franz Ferdinand to know that they probably sound exactly like they do on their album.

After considering trying to sell my wristband tomorrow, I've decided to go back for the Pixies tomorrow evening, even though it's going to be even worse. I'll stick to the outside of the crowd and hope for the best.


So, we went back. ACL day two had Cat Power, who was overpowered by the heat, sun, and big sky, then Soundtrack of Our Lives (I think that was the name) who were big ol' buttrockers. We retreated to the gospel tent for some shade for about an hour, then went to see Endochine (who sucked like Creed) and the Old 97s, who were a lot of fun. We left for a few hours then, and sucked down some chow & margaritas (Em's were virgin, natch) at Shady Grove. My wife went home, 'cause she was beat, and I came back for My Morning Jacket, who ruled the roost. I tried to get good seating for The Pixies, but Dashboard Confessional was playing at that stage right then (more on that stage -- the Cingular stage -- later), and I quickly realized that if I didn't leave, I was going to punch somebody. Anybody. So I went and caught a bit of Gatemouth Brown's show (he's so old that he's just phoning it in now) and still managed to get a reasonably good spot for the Pixies. Fellow next to me was kind enough to smoke me up, too. The Pixies were fuckin' phenomenal, but Joey Santiago's guitar was all but inaudible where I was. During their new Kim Deal-sung song, I headed down the hill to pee, and learned that the North side of the crowd had the best fucking mix on the field. No encore, although the many of the 50,000 people waiting didn't leave immediately. The line to the buses was about 2 miles long. Literally. It stretched from the turn at Robert E. Lee up to the Botanical Gardens, if you've ever been to Zilker Park. Luckily, my wife was willing to pick me up a few blocks down the street. We got stuck in an ungodly line of cars trying to turn around, so I found out that my Subaru offroads well, as we cut through a baseball field to a parking lot, which allowed us quick exit.

ACL day three: started with Calexico, a bit further back from Julie & Dutcher. Damn straight. I still have "Crystal Frontier" going through my head. We didn't much care for Shelby Lynne's aw-shucks persona, so we hit the gospel tent again for some shade. Some crappy-ass white blues guy was torturing people over there, but the shade was sweet enough to convince us to stay. Then came the rush. We hit Centro-Matic, where we ran into many good friends (Hi, Julie, Dutcher, and St. Neil!). Centro-Matic rocked like fuck, but Elvis the C was starting up on the hill, so we headed up there. My wife was starting to feel the heat then, and Elvis was at the Cingular stage with the terrible sound, so we went down the hill to the next stage. From where we were, we could hear Elvis well and see the big screen, so it was all good. I have no idea why he wasted so much of his fucking set on an interminably long blues jam, though. And I don't know how he can play so much of My Aim Is True without puking. But I don't care, because that was great. He played a long encore and went over his time quite a bit. After a while, they just started Spoon on the stage near us, even though Elvis was still riffing on "Pump It Up" not so far away. Once Elvis quit and the cognitive dissonance settled down, Spoon kicked some serious ass. I'm happy to report that their new keyboard player is fitting in quite well. We ditched their set about 15-20 minutes early (and ran into Von D on the way out. Hi, Scott!) to catch a bit of the Drive-By Truckers and get set up for Wilco. The D-B Truckers were in great form, but we only caught about a song before we started to get nervous at the sheer numbers of people at the Wilco show, so we headed over there. There were only about 20,000 people in front of us, so we were maybe in the middle of their crowd. I loved the hell out of Wilco's set, but the outdoor festival setting is once again wholly inappropriate for their sound. And Jeff Tweedy needs to let Nels Fucking Cline play more solos. I mean, JESUS, Jeff, you've hired the greatest chaos generator on the planet, so let him loose! The sound at this stage was phenomenal, and the camera guys were great. I could see Wilco on stage well, despite how far out I was, but the camera guys were getting some phenomenal shots, including one of Nels Cline with his guitar upside down on his amp, feeding back like a maniac, twiddling with knobs on his phrase samplers, shot from behind with the setting sun behind him. Beautiful.

Joey Burns of Calexico and guitar, courtesy Dutcher.

The sound and vision at that stage was so great that I wish all my big shows had been there. Unfortunately, the big shows I saw were all at the Cingular stage, where topography and incompetance conspired to make bands sound like shit and disappear from the big screen for moments at a time. Hopefully, the ACL crew will relocate that stage and hire people instead of slightly retarded rhesus monkeys next year. Cingular: you suck.

So, to recap, the great was: Wilco, Spoon, Centro-Matic, Calexico, the Pixies, My Morning Jacket, Toots & the Maytals, Broken Social Scene, Neko Case, and shade. (not listed: Elvis the C -- because of the bad sound and long blues jam, I'm demoting him.) The crappy was: Dashboard Confessional, Shelby Lynne, Soundtrack of Our Lives, Endochine, and Cingular. Cingular, just in case you missed the point: you suck.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Johnny Ramone, RIP. You were an asshole, but you played some mean guitar, Johnny.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

An apparently happy conclusion to yesterday's story about the woman fired for her Kerry bumper stickers. Nice work, Mr. Kerry.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Alabama assholes. I don't miss jerks like this lady's boss at all.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Leonard Pierce's blog entry today is particularly brilliant. Read it.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Huge congratulations to Julie & Dutcher!

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