Tag: human nature

Listening for the Greater Good

2010 has been granted the dubious honor as the year of the angry voter.  Unfortunately, far too much of that anger has been bolstered by means of a religious appeal.  Tea Party members, for example, have been quick to justify what they believe by using pseudo-intellectual, reductionist conceptions of Christianity.  A quick survey of signs held aloft at rallies will find many who display pure hatred, then cite a verse of Scripture at the bottom.  One sees this also at anti-abortion rallies or those challenging same-sex marriage rights.  A God which always agrees with us no matter what the issue or the circumstance is not God at all.  Christianity may find more of an audience among conservatives, but the gross distortions of many continue to damage its reputation.  

Reform of Any Sort Comes with a Margin of Error

The 1961 Luis Buñuel film, Viridiana, concerns the pious exploits of a young nun who lives in a small village.  Meaning to do good in imitation of Jesus’ ministry, Viridiana leaves the convent and decides to take charge of the moral education of the village’s paupers.  Despite her best intentions, she finds herself exploited, abused, and taken advantage of at every possible turn.  Efforts undertaken to educate the village paupers in morality are an exercise in futility, a clear example of throwing pearls before swine.  After the combined shock of multifarious trauma, Viridiana (Latin for Green) seemingly succumbs to the sin of the world by the film’s conclusion.  Noted reviewer Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote at the time: “The theme is that well-intended charity can often be badly misplaced by innocent, pious people. Therefore, beware of charity.”        

Standing Knee Deep in a River and Dying of Thirst

This morning, as an observer rather than a participant, I witnessed the annual Race for the Cure event here in DC.  It is, for those who may be unaware, a charity run/walk that has served as an effective means of raising funds to combat breast cancer. It also memorializes those who have tragically perished from the disease and celebrates those who have survived.  Before I begin, I certainly do appreciate the sentiment and the work that goes into it putting it on, but there’s a certain sort of commercialized, jocular, self-congratulatory aspect to the gathering that frequently makes me uncomfortable.  At times this morning I felt as though I was in some sort of motivational seminar, the kind that businesses often mandate that their employees must attend.  What I experienced firsthand today was a kind of glossy artifice when nothing could be more devastatingly real or raw than any person who finds herself or himself with a diagnosis of malignancy.  

Providing a Way to Encourage the Best in Other People

So much of my life I spend cynically griping about the bad side of human nature.  The work I do every day frequently centers around a ceaseless source of constant frustration.  Seeking strategies to reform destructive behaviors is the basic skill set of many professions and basic activism.  Influencing people so that they might understand the correct means of conducting their lives is a substantial challenge and a constant energy drain.  I’m sure many of you understand this quandary all too well.  While it is true that we all possess a dark side, some more than others, recent events in my life have provided a unexpected but welcome sense of clarity and perspective. I note with joy over the past three days that I have, much to my great surprise, seen the very best in people.  Once again I am humbled to have been proven incorrect in my assumptions about others.

Some Learning Curves are Longer than Others

In recent conversation with a friend, we discussed the means by which any organization or group might best enlighten those who cling to bigoted, ignorant, or otherwise offensive points of view.  It is a conversation no different from the very same ones we have in a multitude of related corners, spaces where abstract theorizing has to take the place of hard fact.  As an anthropologist, my friend is constantly aware of the intersection where intellect and biological construction meet and couches her views from that point.  As she puts it, evolution of any sort is a tediously slow process.  We have, for example, still not really advanced to the point that we have gotten the hang of this whole walking upright issue.  The human body’s propensity to arthritis is but only one of those most visible examples of this fact of reality.  If our skeletal construction are but unfinished business, it would stand to reason that many others are too.  

Lessons Learned from the Demise of the Recording Industry

In college I was THE music snob around campus.  Or, at least I thought I was.  Friends of friends would stride up to me in the media center or outside of class, asking my opinion on this release or that release, or requesting names of albums that I deemed worth hearing.  I was, of course, only too glad to oblige, since I practically lived in independently-owned record shops and spent the majority of my meager income on CDs.  To some extent, I was the local in-house expert.  So when the recording industry began to tank, I managed to patch together a few credible guesses as to why it happened and for what reason, but I didn’t have the luxury of a full understanding, the way that only someone on the inside would really know.  

Steve Knopper’s recent book, Appetite for Self-Destruction:  The Spectacular Crash of the Recording Industry in the Digital Age answers most, if not all of my questions.  It is a work of interest to even those who are not ravenous audiophiles, since the music industry took such a massive role in the American consciousness, particularly with the rise of rock ‘n roll, and since its decline, a massive void has been left that has never really been filled.    

Even before reading the book, I had not much in the way of sympathy for the recording industry.  Avarice is one of the easier sins to spot and since it is so omnipresent, we are fine-tuned to detect each and every instance.  Sometimes we are mistaken, but often we are not.  Even a few minutes skimming through the book could provide a tremendous body of evidence for anyone inherently skeptical or openly hostile to capitalism, or at least unregulated capitalism.  What I personally found most interesting is just how many times that the recording industry has crashed, only to revive itself, Phoenix-like based on a combination of dumb luck and embracing the future rather than being stubbornly rooted to the tried-and-true.  

An additional irony to add to all of this is that the compact disc, which revolutionized the industry and temporarily made it wealthier beyond belief, was very nearly vetoed by suspicious major label executives whose reservations primarily stemmed from the fact that they were unwilling to take a chance on something that wasn’t a proven seller.  The demise of the industry is a combination of a metaphorical compulsion to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs and an often childish desire to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.  In an earlier era, the backlash against Disco brought the industry to its knees, but the invention of MTV  and the promotion of Michael Jackson and Thriller removed it from life support and returned it to profitability.  A decade or so later, billions upon billions of dollars flowed into the coffers due to the adoption of exploitative profiteering.    

By the late 1990s, the record business had boiled down much of the business to a simple formula:  2 good songs +  10 or 12 mediocre songs = 1 $15 CD, meaning billions of dollars in overall sales.  Cassettes, too, gradually fell victim to this formula, and were phased out.  Attempts to resuscitate the singles market, like the “cassingle” and a shorter version of an album known as the EP, ultimately failed.

“It’s no coincidence that the decline of cassettes and the rise of CD burning arose simultaneously,” says Steve Gottlieb, president of the independent label TVT Records.

Despite withering criticism and tremendous hostility at first, once the CD became the chosen format, it quickly became a cash cow, and suddenly all the initial reservations were mysteriously cast aside.  Music industry execs willfully revised the history of the proceedings and sang hosannas, claiming they had been in favor of this exciting new technological advance all along.  But yet again, they never even considered restraint or long-term consequences.

Or, as it is written,

But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”

The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite.  


In the context of modern capitalism, it would be easy to draw parallels.

Cycles of boom and bust have been our fate over the course of centuries, often for identical reasons.  The difference between the recording industry and the major power brokers on Wall Street is that much thought is given to keep the system profitable and stable, since its lasting health is of paramount importance to all with a dog in the fight.  This doesn’t mean, as we have recently discovered, that the American economy or the Wall Street pirates don’t take dumb risks at times or play fast and loose with otherwise sensible strategies, but most of the time it is fortunately not one unforeseen development away from complete meltdown.  Part of the shock among many during our latest financial crisis was that the existing framework, designed to prevent another Great Depression, completely collapsed, and with its demise came the discrediting of theories that had stood unchallenged for years and years.  Economists will have their theories and counter-theories for years to come, but in this circumstance, how it happened is not nearly as important as the fact that it did.  

Any industry reflects in large part its clientele and those under its employ, and musicians don’t tend to be the most fiscally conservative bunch, nor the most inclined to restrain their impulses.  Record executives often partied as hard as the acts they signed, which often necessitated a desire to keep pumping out inferior product.  And it is for this reason that I believe that the industry has only itself to blame.  Indeed, if there were a way for us to rip apart any major corporate entity, I would surely advocate for it.  This is a bold pronouncement, and I justify it from a moral stance, since the more I read about the way any massive conglomerate functions, the more it makes me want to take a hot shower.  As for the recording industry, major movers and shakers acted like low-level mafioso, and none of them comes across the least bit sympathetic or personable.  I believe that the demand for certain services will always exist and since necessity is the mother of invention, someone with a good idea will step forward to satisfy a need.  In time, the systems proposed by today’s enterprising soul will probably grow corrupt, but I see human progress as a constant cycle of building up, revising, tearing down when necessary, and then building up again.          

To return to the subject at hand, with the CD boom came excess of all kinds.  Major labels hired far more staff than was necessary and in an effort to keep everyone on payroll, they went for the low-hanging fruit in the form of copycat bands.  For every original act, ten sound-alikes were signed, purely to bleed dry the record buying public and generate the maximum possible revenue.  Profit became more important than discovering new talent and facilitating musical advances.  It was this degree of sustained unethical business practice that led frustrated consumers to embrace wholesale file sharing and illegal downloading of music files.  Though the industry managed to shut down Napster, Pandora’s Box had already been opened and it has never been shut.      

To summarize from the book,

Labels were fat and happy, although some executives worried about a market peak.  “You have the huge infrastructure of people…on a ton of floors and all of a sudden you’re stuck with these huge costs.  And its harder to cut people than it is to hire them,” says Lyor Cohen, chairman of the Warner Music Group.  

“All these companies did was try to find fabricated s**t so they didn’t go through having to let people go.  Then you go into an era of fabricated, highly promoted, highly advertised stuff–it’s very flimsy, it sells quickly, and we’re also hurting our credibility with the long term music lover.  And then [the fans] go away to college.”

Teen pop was one last squeeze of the sponge to get the world to spend millions and millions of dollars on compact discs.  It wouldn’t last.

As for the music industry, well, Knopper seems to think that it has finally destroyed itself for good.  I wouldn’t disagree with his conclusion.  What I am waiting to see is what means of music dispensation the future will provide.  Today we cling to our ubiquitous iPods with the omnipresent white ear buds.  If recent history reveals anything, it promises that in the immediate future we’ll be using something else altogether.  As for the established powers, the industry itself is in a bit of a death spiral, running in a million different directions, desperate to find a Messiah.  I admit I do feel pangs of nostalgia at times for the excitement I once felt when looking forward to the latest release by a favorite band and the gratification of buying a CD copy to take home.  Still, there’s enough of the DIY anarchist left in me that enjoys the ability to focus more on live music and the amateurs who play for the love of it, not for the love of money.  I have always been a believer that there is something eternal about art; art always survives.  In stating this, I note that I have always believed that it simply isn’t compatible with capitalism and never really will be.  Some of the most awkward compromises I have ever observed attempt to bridge the gap between the two with minimum success.

When we discuss change in any context we find that its enemy is a system designed to resist, not facilitate reform.  I honestly can’t think of any gathering or organization off the top of my head whose stated agenda is to eventually pass along the torch to new ideas and new generations.  Change we can really believe in is not change in the abstract, rather it is change that is both well said and well done.  It may be against human nature to predicate any organized group on the assumption that incorporating new strategies and new plans of action is a matter of course, not just a a good suggestion and an interesting proposal worthy of contemplation.  Pushing forward in time rather than stubbornly clinging to the here-and-now is a discomforting notion to some, since we often relish control, and in so doing believe ourselves to be obsolete to some extent the instant when we pass the baton, but it is the only way we will ever accomplish anything worthwhile and lasting.  

We as humans are frequently paradoxical creatures, and each of us wishes to leave our mark, to some extent.  We prefer edifying experiences, shall we say, in which we might be remembered by subsequent generations and thus find a way to live forever.  Here in DC, this is evident by the number of public buildings bearing the name of some elected representative or all around important person.  For a time, people might hold close to them the memory of someone who rose to a position of high authority or accomplished something supremely influential, but the passage of time renders that memory fainter and fainter.  Eventually, inevitably, most people see merely two proper nouns and a building, not some rich legacy of accomplishment.  Our greater accomplishments might not be measured in individual achievement, but in the immeasurable elements that go well beyond personal gratification.  The edifying tendency keeps those who have always had power from sharing when it justifiably becomes the duty of a younger generation to take the reins.

We often are confused because our hearts lead us one direction and the world leads us another.  The world tells us to put our own selves first and our heart compels us to use our talents and gifts for the betterment of others.  Perhaps those things that do not threaten another person, no matter how unintentionally, and cannot be perceived for any reason as a direct challenge to someone else’s competitive spirit and personal insecurities are those that truly stand the test of time.  The memory of sales figures may fade and so too a lifetime’s worth of legislative accomplishment, but a contribution to the ongoing business of finding ways for people to live in peace proves to be immortal.  Proposing the means to co-exist based on love and not fear will live on beyond a few paltry decades.  Compassion and kindness cannot be commodified or copyrighted, nor should they, else they soon be the domain of the archaeologist.    

The Simple Joys of a Reduced Christmas Season

While I and millions of DC residents are cleaning up after a huge snow storm, I look out my window this morning and notice strangers giving aid and assistance to drivers of cars stuck out in the wintry mix.  Stodgy, suspicious, ponderous Washington has momentarily set aside its default setting to lend a hand.  It is only when events this big and massive disrupt the status quo that this city shrinks in size and shared humanity begins to creep into the proceedings.  DC is a city full of cross-currents and diversity, so it is rare that anyone is truly on the same page with another for very long.  A Type A city ruled by Type A people means that often everyone is in a hurry going nowhere for no good reason, utterly consumed with their work to the detriment of every other facet of their lives.  Though retailers will undoubtedly even lose money here in these crucial days leading up to Christmas, I can’t say that I am entirely saddened by the development.      

Had this been any average year, the media would have run half a dozen stories (or more) gently chiding us for again, yet another year, completely destroying the meaning of the Christmas season.  Many of us would assume our time-honored roles, mournfully nodding our heads up in down to signify that we agreed, but could find no solution to stop the orgiastic aspects of capitalism from overrunning the most important of holidays.  A recession ought not only provide purely negative consequences.  If we can learn from it, then all is not lost.  If we are to face discomfort and pain, my hope is that we can understand that simplicity is a virtue, not a hindrance, and that accumulating possessions is a bit like accumulating inches of snow.  In the beginning, it’s fun, but after a while, it begin to pose a serious problem.  Not only that, others who believe in the grass is greener principle have a tendency to envy accumulation without understanding its notable drawbacks.

I personally am enjoying fewer crowds, less traffic, and less panicked looks.  That it took a weakened economy and with it the loss of buying power surprises me not a bit.  If the free market promised freedom from producing more problems than it fixes, I would be wholeheartedly in its corner.  Some of the strongest people I ever met were those of my grandparents’ generation, who had faced a Great Depression and a World War, and whose iron resolve and stoic attitude showed the results of having gone fifteen rounds with hardship and tragedy and emerged stronger than steel.  No shrinking violets were they.    

As for these times, the only time I saw anything remotely similar to the traditional Christmas insanity was Friday of this past week, shortly before the snow fell, when thousands upon thousands of residents in our nation’s capital rushed madly to scoop up enough provisions and finish up their seasonal shopping.  Everyone seems to be cutting back this year and I certainly am as well.  Some have mentioned that the tinsel and electric excitement that requires a robust pocketbook is lacking, making this a bummer of a Season’s Greetings, at which point I suppose I have to note that I have grown so cynical about Christmas reality that I have embraced a kind of deliberately sparse rendering.  All that twinkles is not gold.  Some might assume that less money in the bank is the true War on Christmas™, though I believe that to be the overwhelming opinion of bankers.          

The generation of my parents’ parents have been romanticized as “The Greatest Generation” but while the moniker is fitting, I saw nothing particularly superhuman about them.  They were indebted to the same flaws as humanity has displayed ever since humans began to walk upright.  If we faced the same challenges and abject perils as they, I am firmly convinced that we too would respond the identical way they did.  The human body and the human mind have a way of being incredibly adaptive to adversity.  It is fashionable in some circles to take pot shots at Baby Boomers or their children out of some desire to shame us all into acting properly or that we might better appreciate that which has fallen into our lap, but I will refrain from that line here.  We have been incredibly fortunate, certainly, but neither do I think beating us over the head with our privilege is much of a solution.  My hope is that we will retain the memory of what it felt like to not revel in excess and that we will apply those examples to our own lives and to the lives of those who we directly influence.    

If this were truly some pitched battle against all that is sacred and holy against Christmas, then the true enemies would not be a secular society gone wildly astray, having embraced the confusion of political correctness.  Instead, the enemies would be those people and things which fool us into thinking that we are the center of the universe and that there is no need to take into account the lives and struggles of our fellow beings.  As I said before, 364 days out of the year, this city runs on the twin forces of preoccupation and workaholicism, but it has only been now when the roads are still largely impassible, many businesses and places are still unreachable or closed, and public transportation is barely functional that we recognize the folly of our ways.  Still, I imagine a thousand nervous fingers madly punching keys on their Blackberries, expecting a fresh batch of places to go, people to see, and things to do.  

I know personally of many people who believe that bringing their work home with them aids and assists those in need.  Worthy causes exist, of course, and the belief among many is working themselves to death provides help to those who would otherwise not have it.  I know others who have built their entire self-esteem, self-image, and self in their vocation, at the expense of any other facet in their life.  This is tragedy to the extreme.  We lose our humanity when we become robotic and monolithic.  DC needs a snow day like this to re-think its priorities and my hope is that it doesn’t take a series of blizzards, both literal and figurative, to change the conventional wisdom.

Daring to Dance to No One’s Funeral

Taking the time to contemplate the vast amount of right-wing smears that have been either facilitated, advanced, or concocted by conservatives over the past several months is an overwhelming task.  Within each of these petty, partisan, often nonsensical parries and thrusts I am reminded again of the excesses of the Pharisees.  Wishing to have everything on their own terms and in accordance with every selfish demand, modern day Pharisees are found not merely in the opposition party, but regrettably sometimes among our own ranks, particularly in the form of people who fail to neither understand nor respect the vast amount of indignation felt when crucial reform legislation is watered down or vaguely outlined due to nothing more than political expediency and self-preservation.  If this sort of thing was limited to politicians, it might be more easily challenged, but one sees it everywhere.  Most recently, those well-connected business types who long ago lost their souls in selling the whole world are also guilty as charged.


On This Date in 1938 …

Many families have a story about that night.

My grandmother used to describe how my grandfather spent the night on the roof of their tenement building, drunk out of his mind, brandishing his old WWI  Navy service revolver.  From time to time my grandmother would hang her head out the apartment window and shout out updates.

“Al! Al! They’re coming! God’s sake, they’re by Passaic now!”

“Shut up and get your head back in the house, will you?”

“Oh God, Al! They’re coming up on the Palisades! They starting to wade over to New York!”

“Will you get back inside, god damn it!!!”

“Can you see ’em, Al?  God’s sake, can you see ’em???”

A long pause … his eyes would have been squinting, scanning the horizon hard, searching for Martian machines the way he had once scanned for German U-boats … his voice drifted down from up above on the roof  … his voice sounded very small, very sober, and very, very scared.

” … yeah … yeah, I see them … they’re coming ….”

He went to his grave insisting that he saw a line of vast Martian machines striding across to Manhattan. You understand: he saw them.

From the Writer’s Almanac:

   It was on this day in 1938 that a radio broadcast based on a science fiction novel caused mass hysteria across New England: Orson Welles’s adaptation of War of the Worlds. The first part of the broadcast imitated news bulletins and announced that Martians had invaded New Jersey. There was a disclaimer at the beginning of the program explaining that it was fictional, but many people tuned in late and missed the explanation. So they panicked; some people fled their homes and many were terrified.

   War of the Worlds (1898) was a novel by H.G. Wells set in 19th-century England. Orson Welles kept the same plot but updated it and set it in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

Fear and Loafing in Las Vegas

Being a series of gross oversimplified generalizations written in various stages of being on both pain and painkillers, with a happy ending:

I spent five hours in the Las Vegas airport Saturday night. I can’t think of a better reintroduction to America.


A pleasure city built in the middle of the desert to serve the repressed desires of puritanical Americans, who would deny themselves and others pleasure. An illusory mirage of freedom from the constrictions of self imposed illusory moral rectitude. Sin City, it is called. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas….because you aren’t allowed to have fun anywhere else! Built in the middle of the desert…where no body will notice it, lol. A pleasure city to which, in part the mighty Colorado River has been sacrificed. The Colorado River, in case you did not know, no longer reaches the sea. Every drop of it is diverted now, so that Americas can have fountains and golf courses and swimming pools in the middle of a dessert.


Truly a symbol of Americas power. Americas indisputably great power, and Americas indisputably VERY odd use of its great power.