Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How 'bout some slavery with that gumbo?

Thanks and a shout-out to friend and colleague Rick Martin for his Facebook sharing of an article in by Peter Birkenhead about Why we still can't talk about slavery.

Participants in my Nevermore Book Club will laugh about this. Last summer I read, in sequence, The Help, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Gone with the Wind. Apparently I talked about them. A lot. Now they try, as a bit of a parlor game, to work GWTW at least once into our weekly conversation about books. It's sort of the rubber chicken of the bookclub. Which to my mind is a better fate than it deserves. How the romance in this book overwhelms its, ahem, master narrative of racism is something I just don't understand.

Birkenhead notes GWTW's status as the most popular book in America, next to the Bible. With its publication, he says, the Lost Cause glorification of the antebellum South reached its apogee: "The culture of forgetting had become a national religion."

Then he immediately goes on to say that The Help (in its movie form) takes up where GWTW left off by being a tribute to "the unsung white heroes of black history" and by being "a gauzy rendering of the civil rights era as a triumph of the human spirit over mean people."

Sigh. Poor Kathryn Stockett. To have her noble effort at talking about racism dragged into the wake of a racist tract like GWTW. How does Birkenhead get it so wrong?

His article begins with a visit to an antebellum plantation in Louisiana and a nearby restaurant located in a building that might have housed slaves. The history of the places, as re-enacted by their present-day white denizens--shorn of any reference to slavery--is so upsettingly pristine and bowdlerized that Birkenhead swears off gumbo.

Birkenhead has discovered what he calls our national "black hole of memory." He very effectively recounts his palpable discomfort at the lily-white clientele and whitewashed memory of the restaurant. He asks the manager about whether the room used to house slaves, and gets a smiley-faced brushoff: "It's history, and that's all there is to it," the manager says; "it's not something we dwell on, or push out there for people to see." Well, yeah, I can see why you might not want to call your pulled pork barbecue sandwich the "Twenty Lashes Special."

To Birkenhead, these places with their superficiality and muteness are symptomatic of a moral failing at the heart of our culture, a dishonesty about history, a false history invented by the South that has become "foundational" to the point that "it's a lie so big that no one will forcefully challenge it, a lie that's too big to fail."

The lie is, apparently, that the U.S. never was a slave society. "If America is a family, it's a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again--not with much honesty, anyway--about the terrible things that went on in its divided house." Even though slavery has been taught and written about, he says, to the point that nothing compares as "an academic ink-guzzler," nonetheless "we don't feel the connection to it in our bones."

Okay, so if I get this straight, slavery has been taught and written about ... but we just weren't paying attention. We don't feel the connection in our bones. For that to happen, we have to take a Louisiana vacation so we can eat gumbo and suddenly realize "Damn, weren't there slaves in this room? Why didn't anybody tell me?"

Anyway, why go to Louisiana in the first place? To get a real sense of the true dimensions of the slavery issue, I'd recommend ... our nation's capital. Or doesn't Birkenhead know that slaves built the White House? And the Capitol? Hmm, don't have much of a travel budget? Stay at home and look at the U.S. Constitution. Ever wonder why Article I, section 2 mentions "three-fifths of all other persons"? What do they teach journalists in school these days?

Birkenhead, a self-avowed Yankee, comes across either as unconscionably ignorant or woefully naive about  "the big lie" in a way that says a lot about our national inability to have an honest conversation about slavery. Everything would be okay, we gather, if only the South had engaged in "a period of reflection" to "process memories." If only Lincoln had lived to see through "an authentic, family-like, postwar reconciliation." Lucky Lincoln--he only had to win a war and went on to a martyr's glory. It's hard to say what kind of reconciliation he would've led--when only a vanishing minority of white Americans wanted to include blacks in their civic family.

What Birkenhead seems unable to acknowledge, for some reason, is that the end of slavery didn't mean equal rights for blacks--because of the larger problem of white racism. He dances around it, but in his haste to blame vapid plantation re-enactors and Lost Cause villains, he can't seem to admit that you can't only blame them.

Might not an "L.A. writer," as tags him, ever have wondered about the persistence of racism in the United States? Surely there have been signs of it, some of them within recent memory, in Los Angeles. Why does he look for the truth about slavery only on a plantation tour? Why not look for it in his own front yard?

Because that's the honest conversation we should be having. It's about more than slavery. It's about racism--South and North. From sea to shining sea.

Slavery is only part of that story--a crucial part, for sure. But another part of the story is the unwillingness of whites all across the U.S. to accept blacks as part of the family fabric that Birkenhead talks about. Whites outside Confederacy dropped the black cause--if they ever really picked it up--soon after the Civil War ended, and slavery with it.

The overwhelming majority of whites didn't fight the war for blacks anyway. To Northerners, "Slavery" was a corrupting, imperialist, aristocratic institution that debased white labor and threatened states' rights, and, with secession, "Slavery" was trying to subvert a legally concluded Presidential election by dissolving the Union. "The Union" was the cause. Northerners would beat the uppity slavers and save the Union. But blacks? Let the Southrons worry about the blacks. The Southrons brought this war on themselves. Once Northerners got rid of the cause of the war--slavery--they were overwhelmingly content to let the former slavers figure out how to deal with the former slaves. They barely made sure that the Constitution recognized everyone as a citizen. But social and economic equality? Forget it--remember the 10th amendment. Besides, there were redskins to massacre.

And then, when the Southrons promulgated the nobility of their Lost Cause, they weren't wanting Yankees to forget about the slaves. They were wanting the Yankees to agree with them that blacks were inferior and deserving only of lynch mob justice. That classic film of KKK hagiography The Birth of a Nation had a favorable audience in the White House. It wasn't silence that the Lost Cause sought. It was victory. It was nothing less than a national understanding that the South had been right to enslave blacks. African-American historians are generally agreed that the low point in race relations in this country came not during slavery, but during Jim Crow. In other words, after slavery. After freedom. The Old South wasn't so gone with the wind, after all. And frankly, my dear, Yankees didn't give a damn.

The "big lie" that Birkenhead has found--the national "black hole of memory"--is bigger than the story of African slavery in the South. It is the story of white racism. Talking about it as a Southern problem, as Birkenhead does, is a distraction that, while being a very satisfying source of rage, ultimately gets us nowhere if it stops at the Mason-Dixon line. It is a national problem.

Moreover, it's a national problem compounded by another national problem: not reading. If Birkenhead wants to talk about it, he ought to read the damn books. So should we all. Academic ink-guzzling indeed.

Had he bothered to climb out of his pop cultural black hole, Birkenhead could have readily discerned the difference between  GWTW and The Help. Margaret Mitchell was content to perpetuate racial prejudice; she seems to have thought it was the way the world should be. Kathryn Stockett seems to want to have an honest conversation that will, at least, start to move things in the other direction. Her book promotes that honest conversation. If Birkenhead wants the rafters in the restaurant room to witness the truth of what they've seen of slavery, Stockett uses her imagination to accomplish it, insofar as the racist attitudes of slavery were perpetuated into the twentieth century and beyond.

And if you object that she is white, I have to agree. She is white. Which isn't a bad thing, since we're talking about changing white attitudes, right? Well, you know about white people. They don't listen to black people other than Chris Rock, Charlie Mingus, Amiri Baraka, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Jesse Jackson, Harriet Tubman, 50cent, Michael Jackson, W.E.B. DuBois, Herman Cain, Barbara Jordan, Duke Ellington, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Thomas Sowell, Spike Lee, Clarence Thomas (though he doesn't say a whole lot), the Old Spice Guy, the Rent Is Too Damn High guy, and others too numerous to list, but also including the POTUS. So, of course, white people not listening to black people means there needs to be a Magic Whitey to explain the black experience by translating it into mayonnaise. Stockett is the Magic Whitey du jour.

Which could be a gumbo plate, if anybody had a sense of humor. Birkenhead seems to want to feel the connection to slavery in his bones. He should eat more gumbo, not less.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last word, lost world: now

What's your pet geometrical rendering of the universe and meaning? Fate? Destiny? I say "geometrical" assuming that there are arcs, tangents, points, and intersections involved, as well as an urge to submit the whole thing to some kind of proof test that we can stamp with a triumphant Q.E.D. when we've achieved it.

Which we don't seem to be able to do. No one gets the last word. To realize this, all it takes is for someone like Christopher Hitchens to die and for various creedalists to get in a last word*, now that he's dead and not in any position to respond (not through the usual media, anyway), as if his death somehow means he wimped out and gave up, just like that, lost the argument; as if his ideas had no meaning and depended on the vessel that expressed them. If that's what you think, your geometrical rendering of the universe and meaning is the intersection of the ocean and a sandcastle built far below the high tide line. No matter what your creed says.

But it wasn't Hitchens's dying that made me think this. That was a complete afterthought, a standing at the apex of the triangle of the present and looking down the line of the dune at the incoming tidal wave of the future.

No, before that, climbing the hypotenuse, it was reading A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, with its impressive foreshadowing, following it with A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, with its impressionistic and expressionistic foreshadowing, and beginning Karen Armstrong's biography of Mohammed, with its expressive unshadowing. It was wandering through my library and ... okay, it's all too complicated, this geometry. If Jennifer Egan can advance her narrative with a chapter in PowerPoint slides, maybe I should take out my bubble gun and spray you with bullet points:

  • It was wandering through my library
  • over to where the new books are
  • happening upon the new books about music
  • where are Keith Richards's autobio and a new bio about George Harrison in the material world
  • and wouldn't you know Egan's Goon Squad was all about the music world
  • and there's something about Pearl Jam, which I pick up
  • because I went to see Pearl Jam once, in Knoxville, with my son, Sam
  • how old was he?
  • the book is called Pearl Jam Twenty
  • it seems to have every concert they ever played
  • when was that that I saw them?
  • Sam was probably 12 or 13, which would've been 1998
  • nothing in PJ20 about Knoxville
  • but here's something about Pearl Jam changing drummers in 1998
  • and yes, Sam and I went with a friend of his who played the drums and also his drum teacher, Alan Gamble, who turned out to be the son of an attorney I'd worked with, Bill Gamble, who was also a sax player who'd gone to the U. of Chattanooga and who'd played gigs with my father; but anyway I remember that Alan was wondering how the new drummer was going to do; I knew nothing about Pearl Jam other than their reputation
  • it was a great concert
  • but I felt bad for Sam and his friend because we had two separate sets of tickets (Thompson-Bowling Arena) and since the boys wanted to sit together, they took one set and Alan and I took the other. The boys wound up in the nose-bleed section, while Alan and I had great seats--a profile view of the stage, 20 rows up, if that many
  • it was a great concert, for me anyway
  • even though I didn't know any of the songs going in
  • but apparently it was a Pearl Jam non-event because it's not in the book
  • so back upstairs I check online and there it is: Sept. 6, 1998
  • PJ20 is a really big book with tons of pictures. It's also a movie, apparently
  • then I remember that Alan Gamble was in a band in Atlanta that my wife, Carolyn, and I saw when I was in library school at Emory
  • this came up randomly back in 1998 when Alan and I were talking on the way to see Pearl Jam
  • I was describing this really good band I'd seen in Atlanta in 1981 or 1982
  • We figured out it was his band!
  • Arms Akimbo (not The Arms Akimbo; they're Brit)
  • Here they are playing at the Atlanta Arts Festival 5/17/83
  • there's not a lot else about them readily available, but you can see that Alan's a damn good drummer
  • strange world, the pop music world
  • the mass music world
  • Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad main characters try to make it work for them
  • pay for them
  • the arc is from early 80's west coast punk to late first decade 2000's regurgitation
  • how the marketing has changed
  • I played at a festival last summer in Illinois behind Lawson Garrett
  • the festival was like a dream because it was set up for tens of thousands but only tens of tens came
  • Garrett is his mother's last name, like Vedder is Eddie Vedder's mother's last name
  • (Eddie Vedder is the lead singer of Pearl Jam)
  • Artie Kornfeld was pushing Lawson
  • is pushing?
  • trying to make it work
  • make it pay
  • Artie made Woodstock work/pay
  • an event that apparently has some meaning, just for its name
  • Jennifer Egan, writing about the final event in her book, a concert, the thing that wraps it all together. The marketer is cringeing, waiting for audience rejection of the artist, but just the opposite happens, and Egan (or the unknown articulate universal geometer) says "it may be that a crowd at a particular moment of history creates the object to justify its gathering, as it did at the first Human Be-In and Monterey Pop and Woodstock"
  • and it may be that Pearl Jam played Knoxville in 1998, even though it's not in their book
  • and it may be that I went to the beach that summer and built a sandcastle far below the high tide line
  • and it may be that it's not a small world, after all
  • but for sure Christopher Hitchens, it just so happens, right now, at this very moment, is dead.
  • Q.E.D.

*I wrote this when the only creedal reports on death after Hitchens were in print, but two days after posting this, I ate a Xmas Eve brunch at an IHOP with very various creedalists and damned if they didn't resurrect the Hitch. Fate? Destiny? And the IHOP refers to the Easter bunny.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's a Pifa? (A Handel's "Messiah" Mystery)

I just waxed another one-day video project. This is a particular species of folly with somewhat equal admixtures of inspiration, obsession, and impatience; facilitated and hampered by a militant allegiance to cheap consumer electronics (a.k.a. You Don't Get What You Pay For); in pursuit of that elusive creation occupying a niche somewhere between ! and ?

Holiday seasons are particularly sensitive to this kind of home invasion, perhaps because Xmas tree sap and Easter egg yolk push the aesthetic juices to a higher pitch. All of a sudden and for a short while, the cultural imperative to enforce the mundane is replaced by carols and colors, employed for something out of this world. Something somewhere between ! and ?

But in this case waxing hasn't meant waxing, maybe because part of the ? being explored involved a vinyl record. It's still spinning and I'm getting dizzy from it:

  • The video has to do with bagpipes, the traditional instrument of shepherds, who are--let's face it--the only folk like us in the Xmas story. The vinyl record in the video, one I listened to as a kid, included a selection performed on Italian bagpipes. I won't get into it here, but let me just say that they couldn't have been Highland pipes because compared to almost everybody else in Europe my ancestor Scots were Xmas slouches.
  • The title of the video, Xmas Pastoral, is a reference to shepherds. The everyday sense of "pastoral"--connoting either "rural" or "peaceful"--has lost the shepherd connection. I wonder how many people in the religious South of the US who have a "pastor" at their church know that the same word in Latin (from whence it came) means "shepherd"?
  • As I was making it, I kept thinking of the fact that movement 13 of Handel's Messiah is commonly known as the "Pastoral Symphony." As an oboist, I've always thought that Handel missed a wonderful opportunity to throw some musical meat to oboes, the sole woodwinds (other than bassoons in the continuo) in the Messiah orchestra and the logical exponents of anything to do with bagpipes--and it is known that Handel's music is meant to convey the sound of the Italian bagpipes as he himself heard it during the novena days before Christmas.
  • I also kept thinking that Handel's name for the movement was "Pifa." An odd word. What does it mean?
That's where matters lay as I finished the video: with much more in the way of ? than !  I was glad to get the story of the crumbag out to the world (which has heard only the beginning), not to mention the story of how the whole idea was kind of a "eureka!" coming from a French pun in a dream. But for some reason the word "pifa" just wouldn't leave me alone.

Is it somehow related to pifferaio, the Italian "piper" playing a folk oboe sometimes played in duet with the supersized Italian bagpipe known as the zampogna? That's what I'd always heard--or rather read in such places as symphony program notes such as these from a recent Seattle Symphony performance: "It derives from an Italian custom of having a shepherd play an oboe-like pifa during Christmas services." The only problem is that the usual word for the pifferaio's oboe-like instrument is ciaramella.

I looked online and pursued the clues even to the old tried and true Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, but could find "pifa" nowhere.

When the breakthrough in this droning rumination on bagpipes finally came, it wasn't a "eureka" as much as a "duh": the title of the song on the record is "Piva piva." I've known this forever without ever once thinking of its meaning. It looks suspiciously like something a German like Handel would pronounce "pifa" in much the same way as he'd say "vinter vonderland." Following this hunch, I soon found out that piva turns out to be a standard Italian word for bagpipe. It seems to be more of a northern Italian variety, while the zampogna is from the south.

Inuit has several words for "snow." Greek, as any New Testament student knows, has several words for "love." Italian, it turns out, has at least two words for "bagpipe." A richness of embarrassment!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Occupy Blockhead Nation

Eventually, I will get to the point. But first:

I love quotations: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,17th Edition, is one of only two books laying claim to permanent desk space where I work (the other is a dictionary). Among those whose wit animates a fair share of pages in any book of quotes is Samuel Johnson.

While Johnson is certainly no slouch at dispensing insight and wisdom, e.g.,
  • A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
  • People in general do not willingly read, if they can have anything else to amuse them.
  • A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.
at other times it seems that his only purpose is to start an argument with me, e.g.,
  • I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.
  • Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.
  • No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.
That last e.g. really eggs me on. I've been a certified blockhead for much of my life. I did make a pittance for a few years writing program notes for the orchestra I played in--and I do mean pittance (still, it's easier to justify buying beer when you have little extra coming in). But everything else--press releases, professional journalism, novels, lyrics, poems, essays, short stories, blogs--well, I might as well quote Johnson again: "Sir, we are a nest of singing birds." (And remember, this guy detested music.)

While I may be a blockhead because I enjoy stringing words together, I'm no solipsist. What about all those other people who wrote without any expectation of gain? People like ... well, practically any ancient author you can think of; writers seeking new frontiers of style (Joyce, Beckett); legions of academics and scientists with minuscule audiences. Were they blockheads too?

For once I wasn't content to accept the quote as it is. Like any Southerner disposed to goad street preachers into placing scripture in context, I decided to go to the source: Boswell's Life of Johnson. Here's the entire passage, from the events of April 5, 1776:

When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on Italy, he said, 'I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.' This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.' Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.

Here's Boswell pointing out that the "blockhead" quote is a "strange opinion" that he blames on Johnson's "indolent disposition." (???? Maybe Johnson didn't write letters, either--not much in the way of income there.) And the last sentence--"numerous instances to refute this": thank you for taking my side, Mr. Boswell.

Now that that's settled, I can get to the point, which takes off from the fact that the "blockhead" quote turned up as the lead sentence of a book review in the NYT by Jeffrey Rosen (the book under review is Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, by Robert Levine).

According to Rosen, "self-interested Silicon Valley technology companies and their well-financed advocates" agree with Boswell and me. In the other corner, taking Johnson's position, are author Levine and "the media companies that fund much of the entertainment we read, see, and hear."

(The hyphenates "self-interested" and "well-financed" don't apply to the media companies?)

Levine contends that the open Internet model of free video and cheap music (thanks, iTunes!) is winning the match for the blockheads by starving the media companies of financing. Digital Parasites! Destroying the Culture Business! Writes Rosen, "if it continues, Levine argues, the Internet will increasingly become an artistic wasteland dominated by amateurs--a world where music, TV and journalism are virtually free, and where all of us get what we pay for," i.e. says Rosen, Charlie Bit My Finger instead of Mad Men.

Imagine. A world without Mad Men. A real irony here is that Mad Men is about ad execs. If only the  media companies could figure out a way to tap into the advertising revenue that tech companies like Google are raking in. That's what this whole story boils down to. And you didn't even need to read the book. Neither did I.

Also, did I read that right? "Wasteland"? Where have I seen that word before? Oh, but it's different this time. It's the Internet, not TV, and it's an "artistic" wasteland, as opposed to a vast one. Very unlike, say, reality television.

Another thing: an argument that equates Charlie Bit My Finger with bulk copyright piracy needs to ask Charlie to help it sharpen its pencil.

Levine's title invokes the "culture business." Please, let's not equate that with art. Or quality. Does anybody see symphony orchestras getting stronger? Or struggling artists not struggling? The culture business is only interested in what sells. Rosen, presumably echoing Levine, laments that the music industry in 2009 had "$6.3 billion in sales in 2009, less than half its value a decade earlier." Party like it's 1999, music biz, or even better, 1982: take your backlist and re-release it in a brand-new format called the compact disc. No production costs other than manufacturing and marketing! Pocket billions of dollars for doing artistically diddly-fucking-squat! A long view of the history of home video says the same thing: billions of dollars for reaching into the vault and selling backlist products having zero "artistic" production costs.

Much of the story here has to do with copyright enforcement. Part of the solution the Levine proposes, and which makes sense, is already being done in Europe and involves the use of blanket licensing. But what are we doing in this country that Samuel Johnson could not love? A very unloveable thing: copyright enforcement without the involvement of the courts. There is something inherently wrong with copyright enforcement as it is practiced on Youtube. A request from the media companies to take down a video is going to be honored every time by Youtube. The individual poster will have no appeal, even if there is no infringement.

(You tell me: infringement or not? If for any reason Philips didn't like the quote from Love Potion #9--in spite of the fact that its use in a parodic performance is protected--do you think Youtube's going to pay any attention to anyone other than Philips?)

Do you think media companies care? They have already distorted copyright law as it applies to libraries. They don't care about libraries anyway. Using the right of first sale, public libraries have been able to lend materials since their inception, and media companies (oh, I'm sorry: "publishers") see this as stealing from their profit margin instead of a huge marketing platform that costs a pittance. Now, with licensing restrictions for ebooks, media companies (oh, I'm sorry: "publishers") are doing an end-around on libraries. They're looking no further than the initial, direct-to-consumer purchase. Yes, libraries are a fantastic platform for the promotion of authors. But Honey Badger doesn't ... oops, sorry: wasteland intrusion.

Occupy Blockhead Nation.