Dayan ha-Emet

Or, “the True Judge.” We say, “Blessed are you, the True Judge” when we hear of a death.  It is a reminder of who’s Who and what’s what; I don’t believe it implies acceptance, approval, or anything of that nature.  Which is good: I do not accept, I do not acquiesce, and I bite my thumb at fate, and the laws of physics and medicine that took from us a monumentally humane, influential, gloriously productive, learned artist who taught, inspired, and collaborated with so many…while continuing to suffer so many abject morons, poisonous, hurtful, sub-insect lifeforms, to survive and flourish.

Today I heard that my piano teacher in high school, Paul R. Bishop, died in his sleep last night. I imagine it happened after midnight, so I am writing on the very day (well, posting on the day after) he took his bow and went on to his next Engagement. As always, I am reminded of Liszt, who to the end of his life mourned the premature death of his student Carl Tausig, and that God suffered so many fools to continue living while removing Tausig from this mortal coil.  Paul spent his life teaching and accompanying and being a musical force around Claremont, California, my hometown. In recent years, Paul and I had had the pleasure of reconnecting through Facebook; on one visit to Claremont perhaps three or four years ago, I was able to hear a concert he played in and to talk to him after, perhaps thirty years after I’d last seen him. It was a joy to be in touch again; he told me that he remembered what I first played for him (Mendelssohn, Rondo Capriccioso—this was 1971, and I was 14) and that he had thought, “my God, this kid is prodigious.” He was a young teacher then, and I assume he later came to understand that fast fingers with no brain don’t mean nuffin’, that I wasn’t all that impressive.

I’d begun studying with Paul because the relationship with my childhood piano teacher had begun to deteriorate.  Eloise Wilder was a fine, lively, nurturing musician, but as a tween I was finding the old-lady-piano-teacher thing … well, you can imagine.  My mother said, “Well, I wonder if it isn’t time for you to study with a man,” and I thought that would be a good idea.  (This is, I suppose, sexist: I recently brought it up to Mom, now 91, and she said, “Listen, Eloise knew exactly what I meant,” and that was that. Mom is a trained teacher, and says what she thinks and for the most part that’s how. it. is., and she got it right that time.) So Mr. Pierce, at Ralph Pierce Music, recommended Paul, who was one of the new teachers in the studio that was opening next door to his music store.  Early on, Paul asked me if I wanted to make music my career, or at least major in it in college, and I was sure I did not—I’ve always been wonderfully self-aware!—so he said fine, I could study whatever I wanted.  This meant, then, loads of Bach little preludes and fugues, Scarlatti sonatas, and he introduced me to the sonatas of Antonio Soler.  Also Scott Joplin, before The Sting came out, and he even let me play a dismal 1894 potboiler called “The Great Chariot Race March” by E. T. Paull, a piece later associated (somehow) with the silent movie version of Ben-Hur. I believe a colleague of my father’s found it and brought it to me—he had a thing for Lew Wallace and Ben-Hur—and I learned it. I even played it in a recital, to Paul’s amusement.

Such long-forgotten, disrespected consumer-market music has resurfaced in my life, in recent years, thought that’s a story for another day.

Paul was the first music teacher I ever had who made me aware that there was cool stuff out there beyond the notes on the score—a knowledge side, in other words. He was an organist and harpsichordist in addition to being a pianist: Baroque player, in large part, and he one day drove us out to Kasimov’s Pianos in Pasadena in “Golda,” his campily named, gold-colored Mercury Capri, a car I coveted much as I coveted his sight-reading ability, German fluency, knowledge of every goddamned musical thing, etc. Kasimov’s was one of two U.S. importers of Blüthner pianos at the time, an East German brand, and they handled Neupert instruments as well.  Now, Neupert is known, today, for the metal-framed, plucked-Steinway school of harpsichord construction, models that were quite ahistorical in many ways, but I certainly didn’t know any better.  For me, that day, the musical world blew open. I played harpsichords, I played Blüthners, I played a clavichord, I played the Neupert version of a Mozart-era fortepiano, and each instrument was a revelation. We went out for lunch afterward, and talked it all over, and I was pretty much beside myself.  I’m a high school kid, but this is something much bigger: suddenly there was this secret side of music, encompassing languages, stuff to know, strange ornaments to figure out, scholarly disagreements on what Elizabethan ornaments meant. Suddenly my native academic world and my acquired musical world intersected, and beyond gibbering I really didn’t know how to respond.

Paul had studied at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and that was in large part why I took interest in that school and eventually went there (my parents were really not very helpful in terms of higher-ed guidance in music, which I eventually did decide upon as a major)…the faculty were almost all different from those he knew by the time I got there, but I think it was the only place on earth I belonged at the time. That I’d spent so much time playing Baroque music and early Classical music in high school meant not that I was a Baroque specialist, but rather—far more importantly—that I had something I liked, something to which I was drawn. Paul fed my sense of being excited by something.  So although that “something” later changed—at UCSB, I was drawn more to medieval and Renaissance music, and then to nineteenth-century piano music, and so of course the world blew open again and again—it was that I knew how to be drawn to things, whatever they were, to reach out and grab them, without being placidly limited to what my piano teacher next handed me.  Paul was no dictatorial Master; my crazes and weirdities, though it may seem surprising, were not typical among piano students, and Paul had a good sense of how to handle someone as wildly undisciplined but energetic as I.

(I remember the lesson where we talked about the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina,” which I had just discovered—“OK, so it’s a raised fourth,” he said, “and the strings…” To me, it was magic, and the idea that a piano teacher, of all people, would be willing to discuss a 1960s pop-song with me blew my mind.)

If I found his reaction a bit calm, there was a good reason. At UCSB, he himself had been in a band called Jaim—they even released a couple of singles, and an LP.  My record-collector brother subsequently found me the singles, though I never owned the LP (Paul loaned it to me long ago, but I never recorded it).  I had the pleasure of giving Paul my copies of the singles within the last year or two; he was grateful because his copy of the album had been borrowed by a “friend” and not returned.  He had no recordings of that material. The songwriting (which he had nothing to do with) was, unsurprisingly, iffy, but the arrangements were charmingly folk-progressive: variations on the first Bach prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier as background in one song (“Ship of Time,” the single, I think), and earnest playing throughout.  I do have mp3s of the four sides of the singles, which I made before I gave him the records.

And so we came back in touch, exchanging jokes and memes and recordings we liked and so on. In recent months Paul had had an operation—cancer-related, I think, though he didn’t advertise—but he was looking forward to completing his chemo, he saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and he was, so far as I could tell, optimistic. Once, recently, he was less than clear (in a drug-addled state, as he later admitted), he referred to me to a mutual friend as H. Pr. Bellman or something. Sweet, but sorry: to Paul Bishop I would forever be a student, not H. Prof. anything.

And so I read of his departure.  “Can you believe I’m going to be 65??” he had asked when we met, a few years ago.  I was in my mid-to-late 50s then, I think, and I’d studied with him when I was in high school, so yeah, I suppose… But I’d assumed we might have a couple more decades of exchanging jokes and musical material. After all this time, right? Isn’t that how the story would go?

There’s a particular kind of pathos, for me at least, when I as a teacher lose one of my own teachers.  I don’t blubber and sob, but as one who chose to spend, and was privileged to spend, his professional life in the Great Chain of Teaching, there is something of the sense of being orphaned, somehow, whenever one of my beloved teachers takes the Next Step. I have received such wonderful inspiring stuff, such nissim, that it seems that the people who gifted me with it will always be present, somehow, available to answer questions and chat.

And, indeed, so they will: they with me always, as my father is, and chat with them and thank them is something I do regularly. But Paul: one of my unfinished projects is an article on Scarlatti—“Three Scenes from Scarlatti,” I was going to call it—and I was going to dedicate it to you.  I still will, but since you introduced me to Scarlatti I’d hoped you would read it. Damn it.

Forn gezunt: go well, Paul, fly high, soar. You touched so many of us, and it is our privilege to try to pay it forward. I will never play Bach, Scarlatti, or Soler without thinking of you, with gratitude. For now: find rest and renewal, and the multitudes here wish your soul a glorious journey onward.

Posted in Ave Atque Vale, Education | 1 Comment

Trump vs. Trudeau: An Analysis

I suppose it’s a sign of what things have come to when we celebrate a successfully defended handshake as a famous victory. But I’ll take it. I have never been prouder, as a Canadian, than when Justin Trudeau shrewdly countered Donald Trump’s attempts to big-dog him:


As we academics like to say, there’s a lot to unpack here.

Rupert Myers notes that Trump is the living embodiment of those books that promise to reveal the secrets of power and dominance:

The handshake is the ultimate focus of anxiety for a certain sort of self-conscious man, and there are none more obviously fixated by these self-help books than Donald Trump. Just as Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person looks like, he also does a laughable impersonation of an alpha male.

From the over-long red tie and gold lift to the ridiculous photographs and the dyed comb-over, Trump has imbibed deeply from the well of bad self-help guidance to project success.

The apogee of his performance is the handshake, the “Trump Pump”; for all the catastrophes of his Presidency, we shouldn’t overlook how ridiculous the pump is, and how symbolic it is of his approach.

Let this little essay be a first, halting step in the great humanistic project of grasping the complex symbolism of the Trump administration. And grasping it, one hopes, with the same manly vigor with which Trump grasps the hands of his adversaries.

The defining feature of the TrumpPump™ usually comes a few seconds into the handshake. The sequence goes like this: Trump’s target comes in range and extends a hand; Trump grasps it, gives it a few ordinary pumps, and then suddenly yanks it away from its owner’s body. The TrumpPump™ victim loses possession of his center of gravity and is forced to lurch forward into Trump’s personal space. A win for the Big Dog.

For instance, you have probably seen Trump yanking Shinzo Abe’s hand like he’s trying to start a rusty lawnmower.


But this is not a new move. On the campaign trail, Mike Pence repeatedly looked like a Hoosier getting his arm caught in the thresher:


There is a supercut of Trump handshakes, and a little editing shows the strange invariance of this tugging maneuver.


Until he met Justin Trudeau, Trump was the Ronda Rousey of handshakes. Like Rousey’s famous armbar, the TrumpPump™ claimed one victim after another, and even if they knew it was coming, they were powerless to stop it. But like Holly Holm, Trudeau had studied his opponent’s technique, and, drawing on his experience as a boxer, used control of distance, positioning, and timing to defeat his formerly invincible opponent.

A look at Trudeau’s 2012 boxing match with Senator Patrick Brazeau — “the thrilla on the hilla” — is instructive. Brazeau is what trainers call a swarmer, a hard puncher with a smothering, high-pressure style, always trying to come inside his opponent’s range and overwhelm him with flurries of strikes. Trudeau, a 3-1 underdog going into the fight, is more of a true boxer, an out-fighter who relies on his longest strike, the jab, to keep his opponent at distance and open up opportunities for power shots. It is usually said that a swarmer beats a boxer, and indeed in the first round Trudeau was getting the worst of it as Brazeau waded in, winging hooks to the body and head. But towards the end of the first round, Trudeau was starting to time his jab and hit Brazeau as he was coming in.


Here Trudeau throws a weak pawing jab as Brazeau is telegraphing a left hook, and although Brazeau gets off first, both punches land at almost the same time. Brazeau throws with more power, but his looping punch takes longer to get to its target. Trudeau’s punch is light but straight and covers much less distance to find its mark. So Trudeau can see Brazeau loading up his left and use Brazeau’s momentum coming in to spear him on the end of his jab. Trudeau gets cuffed across the face, but Brazeau looks like a man who just walked into a patio door. Here Trudeau shows us how timing and positioning can beat power. You don’t need to put everything into your punch; if you time it right, you just put your fist where your opponent’s face will be when he comes charging in.


And this moment in the first round tells the tale of the fight as a whole. In round two, Brazeau slows down (his conditioning was clearly not up to sustaining the blitz of the first round) and Trudeau finds the timing on his jab. Now he doesn’t have to take one to land one; he’s continually cracking Brazeau with his jab and pulling his own head back to avoid counters. Remember, Brazeau’s style relies on getting inside his opponent’s reach and into the “pocket,” the close-in space where he can dig in his hooks. But after the first round, Trudeau uses his longer reach from a bladed stance to keep Brazeau stuck on the outside, where he is forced to eat shot after shot. In the clip below, Brazeau takes several hard jabs and covers up, at which point Trudeau comes inside to land a six-punch combo that ends in a thudding jab that snaps Brazeau’s head back:


So, long story short: in this fight, Trudeau used timing, distance, and positioning to beat raw aggression.

So let’s look at that handshake again:


Trump is all raw aggression. He engages you on the outside and hauls you inside, where he can control the space around your body and immobilize you. In the TrumpPump™ supercut, everyone makes the same mistake and tries to stay on the outside. But Trump is a big man, I’m guessing 260 pounds, and at distance he can easily put his considerable mass in motion to haul you in. This is what that tugging motion is about. It’s like it’s like when you yank on a frozen car door: you can get more purchase on the door if you grab the handle, stand back a little, and flail your weight around at the end of the lever (your arm) than if you stand in close and use only your arm strength to pull the door open.

So the first thing we notice is that Trudeau denies Trump distance, moving in quickly and clinching with him to smother his attack. Timing is key to managing distance: in fighting, time is space*, and if you get in on an opponent’s attack quickly you can deny him space to move. Which is what Trudeau does. With Trudeau’s left hand on Trump’s tricep, Trump can’t move back to get the space he needs to put some mustard on his tug.

Also, notice that Trudeau comes in with a boxer’s bladed stance, side-on to Trump’s chest. This gives him a big mechanical advantage, as a fighter in a bladed stance is much harder to move off his center of gravity than one that is squared up and directly facing his opponent. As you can see from the video clips above, this is another mistake almost everyone makes with Trump, coming into range squared up and open to being off-balanced.

From this bladed, side-on stance, Trudeau can extend his right arm forward while keeping it held tight across his body. You can control a limb that is tight in to the body’s center mass much more easily than one that is held away from it, and Trump is thus unable to pull Trudeau’s arm across his center line.

The moment is reminiscent of a key episode from Holly Holm’s fight with Ronda Rousey. (This is mixed martial arts, not boxing, but the same basic tactics apply.) Rousey tries to set up a Judo uchi mata throw in order to get Holm to the canvas, where she can lock in her famous armbar. Previous opponents had never had much success blocking this sequence. But as Firas Zahabi points out in his excellent analysis of the fight, Holm positioned herself by the fence to deny Rousey the space she needed to gain purchase on the throw. This also put Holm in a position where she could keep her arm in close to her body and jerk it back when Rousey briefly pulled it out. (See the first five minutes of Zahabi’s analysis but especially the part around the four-minute mark.) Without control of the arm, Rousey couldn’t get the throw and was forced to stand and box with Holm, who was by far the superior striker and ended up knocking out Rousey in the second round.

So, to recap: Trudeau uses superior positioning, timing, and control of distance to defeat Trump’s high-pressure style just as he did in defeating Brazeau’s. In this instance, anyway, boxer beats swarmer: technique and ring smarts beat size, strength, and aggression.

I imagine that readers who came here to read something about music may be disappointed to see a close analysis of a fight instead, the analysis of fights being an enthusiasm some of my readers doubtless do not share with me. But like Norman Mailer, I am fascinated by the similarities between fighting and playing music: both are places where human wills can contend through the medium of energetic bodily performance. Both, then, offer opportunities for reading the minute traces of social contention, of attack and counter, aggression and resistance; both offer the analyst a microcosm of social life more generally.

So what larger conclusions can we draw from the Trudeau/Trump bout? First, Trump is, like Rousey, a pressure fighter, a swarmer. This is a style that understands force and only force. Pressure fighters are comfortable moving forward and taking the initiative, but when they can’t, they become vulnerable. Second, the pressure style works a lot of the time, partly because it looks like it should work. Pressure fighters often give fans the impression that they are invincible: think of Rousey, Mike Tyson, or Conor McGregor. But (third) no one style will always prevail. Fighting styles are like rock-paper-scissors, where a swarmer beats a boxer, a slugger beats a swarmer, and a boxer beats a slugger. Usually, anyway. But clever fighters can win even in a bad style match-up by understanding the nature of their opponents’ game. This is what Trudeau did: he knew that Trump thinks aggression and force are the answers to everything, so he was able to make adjustments that made Trump’s aggressiveness a liability for him.

Which actually seems like it might be a pretty good strategy for dealing with Trump more generally.

*Look at that slow-mo gif of Trudeau and Brazeau again. Trudeau has less time to land a shot than Brazeau, because he is reacting to a punch that is already being thrown. But because Trudeau’s jab is straight and has less distance to travel, both attack and counter land at the same time. Trudeau economizes on space to give himself time; conversely, Brazeau takes up more space and gives up time. In fighting, as in Parsifal, time becomes space.

Posted in Athletics, Gestural analysis, Politics | 1 Comment



Me at the Bloomington “No Ban No Wall” protest today. So much for my short-lived “I’m not talking about American politics” thing. Trump affects the lives of people around the world, including Canadians. Viva la résistance, wherever you are.

Posted in Come at me bro

Protest Songs I

In my last blogpost, I asked where the protest songs were.  That post, “No Pasaràn,” was posted on Saturday January 21, and on that very date that a fine protest song (rehearsed online and performed for the first time at one of the Women’s Marches) saw the light of day.  I speak of “Quiet,” by Milck, here performed on the January 25 Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (on the link, it starts at 4:25 or so).  What I like about it is that—like many of the best protest songs—it gently straddles the personal and political; it’s musically strong (already rare enough) and has a personal message that is still sufficiently universal that one can imagine throngs of women singing along with it.

A day or two ago, Fiona Apple released “Tiny Hands” (Link found in this Washington Post article—“We don’t want your tiny hands/anywhere near our underpants”—that’s it), a chant intended for marches.  To my ear, the flaccidity of this release cannot be overstated.  Of course, the coverage (probably by her publicist) called it a “strong statement.”  No, it was a lame-as-hell statement.  Instead of actually saying anything that a wide swath of women might want to join in with, there’s a kind of elementary-school transgression (“She said ‘underpants’!”), coupled with a sort of premeditated confrontation.  In my world, at least, nothing is more boring than premeditated confrontation, and this example is informed (in the broadest, most charitable sense) by a sort of paleo-aesthetic of the mid-60s.  I—being of a certain age—have friends that can’t bring themselves to put on a pussy hat, however much they support the whole enterprise; it doesn’t look nice, it’s distasteful, really, must we be on this level?  Whether I agree or not, I’m in no position to judge the sentiment, and the wider question is raised: how wide a cross-section of women would really chant this kind of thing at a march, or after the moment has passed?  Is this barely existent—ah, “release”—really what is called for?  (Consider the clear concern, by the current occupant of the White House, of the size of a particular part of his anatomy.  “There’s nothing to worry about, believe me.”  Really.  Actually, pal, I hadn’t asked, and had not been inclined to think much about it.  I don’t think anyone else asked, either.  That you are inclined to talk about it redefines the entire idea of “distasteful.”)

Never mind that.  Another really good one is Alicia Keys’s “Holy War,” another of those deeply personal takes on a universal sentiment.  This one is also musically strong, and touches a deeply personal note—how is it that war (=bloodbath, fractured lives, unending grief) is noble while sex is obscene?  Is sex not a universal, or nigh-universal, experience and need?  How has this Land-of-Upside-Down worldview become a respected (or even tolerated) aspect of our national culture?  “Maybe we should love somebody/Maybe we could care a little more” is not a radical idea to a family-type guy like yours truly, or to many other familiar American types, but it’s actually a justified protest—since the 1980s, I think, Rush Limbaugh and other sub-insects have been making blame, resentment, contempt, and loathing utterly normal.  In such a culture, it is far too easy to forget that the baseline human experiences are lying down next to someone one cares about, rocking a baby one loves, wanting to veritably melt into the food-and-drink-and-hugs-and-family that is the clan-gathering of one’s own.  These songs remind us, at this most precarious of times, that the human default is connection (even for introverts!), and that if you care about, or have cared about, one other person, then it is no more than an extrapolation to care about the rest of your fellow-creatures.  It you’ve either found The One or would like to, the well-being of others (from other countries and cultures, from different classes) becomes a requirement for existence.  This is essentially indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders’s “If you hurt, I hurt” worldview: everyone should have love, medical care, education, opportunity, enough to eat, a safe place to live…the rest, we can argue about at our leisure.  But those are non-negotiables.  So Ms. Keys’s question is an old one: how is it that sex is obscene and war (agony, bloodshed etc.) is somehow OK?  What the hell is wrong with us?  To whom have we been listening, to our shame and detriment?

Now: these songs are all by women.  No one with even half a functioning synapse would say that women don’t have good reason to be infuriated by the current occupant of the White House.  Still, gentlemen, have we not had sufficient motivation ourselves?  I think of “Strange Fruit,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Eve of Destruction”—an infinite number of angles, tones, approaches.  When will our county be heard from?  Bring it, guys.  This isn’t just Vietnam or Civil Rights, it’s everything, all that and more: gutting of the rights of citizens, abuse of those seeking to be productive citizens in the American experiment (a long way from over, so don’t even think about it), the abuse of religious and ethnic minorities of all descriptions, gender equality of various kinds, tolerance of religious fascism to buy political approval…the whole shootin’ match.  Where are our songs?  I like Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own”; but does that really answer the red-alert call of the present?

Everyone: get your guitars out.  All hands on deck.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics | 1 Comment



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No Pasarán

First, a friendly confidential to Ms. Clare Ford:

Thank you for weighing in, and I’m sorry that it happens in this ugly season.  In all honesty, I did not even listen to Obama’s (by all accounts, nobly statesmanlike) address.  If I met him in person, I’m not sure I could even look him in the face.  For the past eight years, he has endured unimaginable slanders, betrayals, and openly treasonous and hateful behavior, not only from (trigger warning, Phil: here follows the sort of ragefilled, ugly rhetoric that upsets you) the sort of idiot thugs that are feeling ever more empowered here in the U.S., those who are now painting swastikas, threatening women, gays, Blacks, Latinos, people who can read, people who have 46 chromosomes, “coastal elites” in general, and—perhaps worse—from members of the press (or, recte, the “press”) and even high-ranking elected officials.  For me, all of this makes the nobility and restraint of the Obama family almost unbearable.  I don’t like saying this, but I do find myself wondering if Michelle Obama’s comment, “when they go low, we go high,” hasn’t passed its sell-by date.  How to put this?: my ethical and philosophical background and upbringing did not incline me to allow others to take on my suffering.  Not an admired national leader, not underlings taking guff meant for me, not even (ahem) a religious figure. I cannot offload my responsibility for feeling whips and scorns, or for responding to particular kinds of treatment, to another—real, historical, or mythical.  The “look how noble he is; can you not be more Obama-like in your responses?  What would Obama do?” goes in a direction from which I turn away.  I am a citizen of this country, and I have to take responsibility, on some level, for what happens here.  As I have no gun and am long past the age of effective physical combat, I need to use my voice, pen, and keyboard.  This follows the greater principle of “If you see something, say something,” I suppose.

Now, back to a brief comment on our dust-up:

Phil’s SHTF post seems to agree with most of my substantive points while disliking my ugly rhetoric…so I’m not even going to bother.  My parents often objected to my rhetoric, many of my teachers certainly disliked it, and under the present circumstances I’ll be damned if now, when not 24 hours have passed and it’s already harder for middle-class people to buy homes, and the clown is taking aim at the ACA and the NEA (medical care and the arts being, apparently, major threats), I’m going to constrain myself to talk nice about his supporters.  Charles Schulz gently but unmistakably called this out more than a half-century ago:

“Look out!! Ha! Now you’ve done it! Now you’ve broken a lamp, and you’ve got no one to blame it on but yourself!”

“Maybe I could blame it on society!”

Nope.  And now, having done the damage because they were credulous, manipulated fools who are already beginning to suffer buyers’ remorse (while still clutching their guns and bigotries), they are entitled to neither respect nor understanding.  They have done me and my country inestimable damage, and it is clear how effective “reaching out to them” has been.  Save the tears; not interested.

I am not in a frame of mind where solutions are presenting themselves.  When the neediest people vote to destroy their own access to medical care, or don’t vote at all, I’m out of ideas.  I work in arts education, though, so: as Melania’s husband takes aim at the arts, in the form of the NEA, I’m interested to see what artists do.  A rebirth of the protest-song genre?  Guerrilla art?  I hope that it takes internet snarkerei to an effective level, beyond dark entertainment.  A song like the Pete Seeger/Joe Hickerson “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” had a seismic effect, culturally.  Punk-genre rage songs remain with us, but they don’t stick, or spread.  Same with Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.”

The anthem that miraculously hits the right resonance.  To paraphrase my favorite quote from The Untouchables, “What are we prepared to do?”

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics | 4 Comments


It’s been a while since Jonathan and I got into a scrap on Dial M. I kind of missed it. Whatever else may be said about Jonathan, he’s a fighter, and I like that about him. A couple of people have emailed me to express alarm at his recent post, but I don’t mind it when Jonathan takes a swing at me. Anyway, I started it.

I’m not actually going to respond directly to a lot of Jonathan’s points, partly because I actually agree with a lot of them.* Main point of agreement: it is stupid and obnoxious to tell people who are being targeted by organized and weaponized hate to love their enemies. My attitude on this score is actually far more militant than you might expect. My Mum posted a comment here that compares my stance to Obama’s, which is very nice but is the kind of thing a loving and indulgent mother would think about her boy. My real position is much closer to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. (Sorry, Mum.)

A lot of people forget or never knew that “for Self-Defense” was the other half of the BPP’s official name. The BPP formed when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale hit upon an action they could take in response to police brutality. (Who are you going to call when cops are terrorizing your community? The cops?) The idea was simple: California laws at the time (as in most states today) allow for the “open carry” of firearms so long as they are not brandished at anyone in particular and obey certain safety protocols. The Panthers memorably put this strategy into action when they descended on the state capitol en masse, bristling with guns.**


Point Seven of the BPP’s “What We Believe” statement reads,

We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.

I don’t really disagree with any of this. If the state is corrupted — and yes, I think there is good reason to suppose that it has been or shortly will be — and can no longer be trusted to safeguard the lives and freedoms of all its citizens … well, that’s what the 2nd amendment is for, isn’t it?

I know I’m not the first person to think this since November.*** The traditional (i.e. very conservative) gun community heaved a huge sign of relief when Trump was elected, and yet Black Friday saw the biggest single-day number of NICS background checks ever. Why? Hard to say quite yet, but it seems as if a lot of progressives — even fervently anti-gun progressives — are starting to realize that posting angry blog posts is not going to help them if and when the SHTF. We all hope the S doesn’t hit the F. But what if it does? That is what Jonathan’s original post was about. The academic’s usual answer to everything — keep the conversation going! — doesn’t seem quite good enough anymore. I strongly agree with Jonathan that the dumb Leonard Bernstein quote you see everywhere (“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before”) is worse than useless. It’s hard to get your embouchure right when someone is kicking the teeth out of your face. And I also agree with Jonathan that crossing our fingers and hoping for the best is no answer at all.

But the obvious and logical conclusion to the question what if the worst does happen — that if you can’t rely on the authorities you have to rely on yourself and your people — does not come easily to latter-day progressives. So everywhere we see a cataract of rage and loathing (of which Jonathan’s original post is a specimen) that comes, I think, of people stuck between the rock of a dire situation and the hard place of learned prohibitions and taboos that keep them from doing anything about it, except more and angrier talking. On the whole, we academics do not speak softly and carry a big stick; we speak loudly and constantly and carry no stick at all. Which, if and when the SHTF, is a bad strategy.

Long story short, I believe in the rights of threatened communities to defend themselves against tyranny. Now, I need to say a few things by way of qualification. No, I’m not advocating violence or lawlessness. No, I don’t think everyone should go out and buy a gun. No, I don’t own a gun. Yes, I know that guns are dangerous and a lot of American lives are lost unnecessarily because of them. No, I don’t think things are exactly the same, now, in 2017, as they were in Oakland in 1966. No, I’m not defending everything the Panthers did. And I’m not even saying that things are at a pass when progressives and members of threatened communities (African American, Jewish, LGBTQ, Muslim, etc.) should assume it’s time to arm up. Since I don’t belong to any of those communities, it’s not my business to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do.

If you are lucky enough not to be an easy target of hate crimes — if , for example, you are a straight Anglo-Canadian guy — what is your responsibility? I won’t pretend to know what would happen if I were witness to, say, someone trying to tear a hijab from a Muslim woman’s head. I would like to imagine that I would bravely intervene, though when people are thrown into sudden, unpredictable, violent situations, they usually freeze. I know what my responsibility is, though, and that is to do something, to act. And once you face that responsibility, the question becomes, what will you do? I am thinking long and hard about this question, and I think that the value of Jonathan’s post (leaving aside the rhetoric, which, sorry, I still think is pretty ugly) lies in the fact that he, at least, is trying to answer that question.

So I am not urging a turn-the-other-cheek approach here. On the contrary, I am urging self-defense and solidarity. But aren’t I contradicting myself? Wasn’t I saying that we should be nice to the all the White Supremacists and homophobes?

No. We should treat our friends as friends and our enemies as enemies. But just as it’s a bad idea to approach a crisis with loud shit-talking and no credible means of backing it up, it’s also a bad idea to proclaim, at the outset, on general principles, that all red-state Americans are our enemies, especially if we don’t actually know any. Right now, we need all the allies we can get.

This is my problem with Jonathan’s original post. He suggests that about half the electorate is our enemy, unworthy of the minimal baseline respect and obligations owed to fellow Americans. No, about half the electorate voted for Trump. A few of those people have been emboldened by Trump’s victory to commit hate crimes. I’m guessing that a small but nontrivial number of Trump voters would love to commit some hate crimes if they had half a chance. But unless someone gives me actual evidence to the contrary, I believe that this country is full of people who didn’t vote for our preferred candidate and yet would be fighting right along with us if the government sent its attack dogs after us. I know Jonathan doesn’t agree, and the example of the Third Reich (or, more recently, Rwanda) does offer the dismal spectacle of neighbors who were friendly and decent right up to the point they weren’t. Maybe I am being naïve.

But allowing my hatred of Trump (and yes, I really hate that guy, to a degree that sometimes makes me feel physically sick) to turn into a hatred of people who voted for him … that feels like capitulation to his barbarism. It feels like I’m playing someone else’s game, like I’m being played for a sucker. Given what recent intelligence leaks tell us, it’s quite possible that we are being tricked into playing someone else’s game — someone who does not mean the United States well.

This is why I brought up that stuff about Beethoven, Prometheus, etc. It is possible to have a hard-ass, come-at-me-bro attitude that is nonetheless not tinctured by bitterness and hatred, and the best responses I’ve seen (among younger people especially) are of this sort.

Well, this post should put the cat among the pigeons. Looking forward to reading all temperate and well-reasoned responses.

*This, though,

Of course, the guy who has dropped far more S- and F-bombs etc. on our blog than I have—for style reasons, doubtless—may want to show a tad more restraint in talking about “rhetoric,”

is a particularly lame attempt at tu quoque. But fuck it, I have other fish to fry.

**Interestingly, one of the first modern gun control bills (the Mulford Act) was drafted expressly to thwart this tactic. It is richly ironic that the NRA was happy to back this measure. This thought should give pause to modern-day progressives who want strict gun control; there is an argument to be made that, in the United States, prohibitions on private ownership of weapons have always been a tool of racist authoritarianism.

***A few data points:

  • The BBC reports that progressives are suddenly buying a lot of guns. This article quotes a spokesperson for the Liberal Gun Club (did you even know this existed?) saying that they have seen a 10% spike in paid memberships.
  • In the wake of Ferguson, a Philadelphia activist named Maj Toure formed a group called Black Guns Matter, which is a good deal more moderate the the BPP but which nevertheless agrees with them that “the best way to combat police brutality is to get armed.” BGM has gotten support from some unlikely places, including the NRA.
  • The Pink Pistols (motto: pick on someone your own caliber), a group that supports LGBTQ people who conceal-carry in order to protect themselves from hate crimes, has experienced a huge surge in membership since the Orlando shooting. Operation Blazing Sword has compiled and mapped a huge list of LGBTQ-friendly firearms instructors.

None of this proves anything, except that issues around gun ownership in the U.S. are a lot more complex than either the Left or the Right is willing to recognize.

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