Monday, September 25, 2017

"Amid Trump’s nuclear brinksmanship and social-media provocation toward North Korea, amid the swollen gorges of water streaming through Puerto Rico, amid the craven and indefensible attempts to gut health care, amid the slower-moving crises of voting access, economic inequality, and climate change - amid all these things, Trump yet again found a novel way to diminish the nation he purportedly leads. He has authored danger in more ways than there are novel ways to denounce it. This is his singular genius." - Jelani Cobb, in The New Yorker

Sunday, September 24, 2017


Photo By Matt Stone
Back in the 1970s, I attended Boston University.  From the windows of some of the second- and third-floor classrooms, we could see out across the Charles River all the way to the dreamy spires of Harvard University in Cambridge, and could imagine an invisible stream of employment offers, opportunity, privilege and prestige channeled from the upper strata of American society straight toward Harvard and bypassing BU altogether.

In a recent Washington Post article, poet, translator, essayist, and Biblical scholar Sarah Ruden, wrote that the real institutional mission of Harvard is "instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.”

As has been widely reported in the news, Harvard recently rescinded a fellowship offer to whistle-blower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning, but extended a similar offer to Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, justified the decision to select Spicer and Lewandowski and reject Manning based on what "the community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire.”   To quote Francine Prose in a recent Guardian article, Dean Elmendorf's statement implies that students could learn more from two men "who had lied in service of a liar than from Manning – who had gone to jail for bravely leaking documents that revealed the truth about (among other things) our use of torture and the number of civilian deaths in Iraq."

To be clear, Chelsea Manning did not compromise U.S. National Security or disrupt the U.S.from continuing its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  She paid a steep price for her actions, and hearing her express how one can both serve one's country and decide to follow one's conscience during wartime, especially when you become aware that your country is violating international law and that your President, Secretary of State, National Security advisors and military leaders are lying about their policies and their destruction of countries and people, would be well worth hearing and debating at the Kennedy School.

Elite schools have long exhibited a trend of hiring former government officials to teach, whatever their prior actions and histories. John Yoo, the author of many of the Bush administration’s torture memos, is a tenured professor of law at UC Berkeley.  John Negroponte, who oversaw the CIA’s brutal war in Nicaragua and death squads in Honduras, is a distinguished fellow of “grand strategy” at Yale.  Fordham has named former CIA Director John Brennan as a fellow despite his past statements on torture.

The only credible explanation I can think of for why Spicer, Lewandowski, Yoo, Negroponte, and Brennan are all considerable acceptable for positions at elite universities and Manning not is that the combination of gender, sexual orientation, and ties to power and the elite make the former attractive to donors and future donors to the universities and the latter less so.  It becomes a self-fulfilling loop of the elite reinforcing the privilege and prestige of the elite, and everyone else left out.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Psychedelic Music, Part III

The music of the band Animal Collective functions much the same way as does the music of Miles Davis, albeit in a completely different genre with a completely different sound.  However, not unlike Miles, Animal Collective builds hypnotic layer over hypnotic layer, and the attentive listener can easily get lost in the mix.

I once heard somebody say that Animal Collective's songs sound like two of the greatest Beach Boys songs ever, but played at the same time.  To the uninitiated, the complexity of the multi-layered compositions can sound confusing, but if you let if flow through you and let yourself flow with it, you're in for quite a journey.

And if What Do I Want? Sky doesn't convince you on AC's psychedelic music bona fides (not to mention their Beach Boys influences), then this certainly should:

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

To my mind, there are two forms of psychedelic music.  In the first, the artist/musician attempts to recreate or simulate the effects of the psychedelic experience.  Yesterday's Miles Davis composition is an example of this form, with its disassociation of time and space and the way it loses itself in layers.  These artists are saying, in effect, "this is what it was like when we were high." 

Today I'm talking about the other form of psychedelic music, which is produced by the artists/musicians who use the expanded consciousness afforded by the psychedelic experience to express something that may not have been realized without that experience.  These artists are not saying, "this is what it was like when I was high," but are instead expressing ideas, concepts or emotions that have been informed by the experience (e.g., "This is what love is about when ego/self has been transcended").  

Much of Bjork's music and art falls into this latter category.  The video above is not some sort of recreation of what it's like to be tripping, but could only have been conceived by someone who had.

Which is not to say that the only way to be creative is to get stoned out of one's mind.  One of my pet peeves is when I hear someone who's seen some art or performance that is truly creative or even downright weird state, "That person must have been on something really wild," as if that's the only possible explanation for ideas or conceptual creations outside of the norm.  This is not only demeaning of the originality of creative artists, but it shows the limited imagination of the person making the comment.

It's apparently hard for those who haven't undergone the psychedelic experience (or for that matter, those who haven't spent time in intensive meditation) to distinguish between the creative art of the experienced (for lack of a better term) and the inexperienced, but those who have can easily perceive the difference. Those who have can instantly recognize the shared experience expressed by the music of, say, Jimi Hendrix and the band Animal Collective, or for that matter Bjork  They also know without being told that some other musicians, no matter how bizarre or extreme the music may be, don't share their experience (e.g., Frank Zappa and many hardcore metal bands).

An interesting exception to this thesis is David Lynch, who produces both forms (re-creative and reflective) of psychedelic art (in his case, cinema) informed not by psychedelics but by transcendental meditation.  Meditation is not the same as psychedelics and the two don't feel even remotely similar to each other, but both apparently transport the practioner to the same place.

I still don't know how to classify the poetry of Walt Whitman into this scheme. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

One of the under-recognized masterpieces of psychedelic music, IMHO.  

Speaking about Louis Armstrong (but it certainly applies to this Miles Davis composition as well),  in 1952, Ralph Ellison wrote:
Once when I asked for a cigarette, some jokers gave me a reefer, which I lighted when I got home and sat listening to my phonograph. It was a strange evening. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.  That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music . . . So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths . . . It was exhausting -- as though I had held my breath continuously for an hour under the terrifying serenity that comes from days of intense hunger. And yet, it was a strangely satisfying experience for an invisible man to hear the silence of sound. I had discovered unrecognized compulsions of my being -- even though I could not answer "yes" to their promptings. I haven't smoked a reefer since, however; not because they're illegal, but because to see around corners is enough (that is not unusual when you are invisible). But to hear around them is too much; it inhibits action. (from Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Meanwhile, At Fenway . . .

Or, below, imagined as a post-apocalypse shelter in the computer game Fallout 4.