Culture, Karaoke, and Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature

Since most of my work is accomplished in relative isolation, by the end of the day, when most people are sick of dealing with the world and want to stay home, I’m looking for a place to go.  So, last night I wandered out to one of my favorite watering holes.

I walked in the door and was instantly reminded of the fact that it was karaoke night.  This is not my favorite activity in the world, but some good singers can be enjoyable to hear.  Watching such spectacles can also present an occasion for meditating upon human nature, as I did last night.

I arrived as a friend of mine—we’ll call him “Bob”—was singing.  I pulled him aside afterwards and in a volley of strong langauge told him that generally I’m hard to please but that I think his singing is fantastic.  He has good vocal production, a good sound, strong lungs, and he sings in tune.

After “Bob” was finished, however, we were subjected to one dreadful performance after the next, during which time many people with no musical expertise were grimmacing in pain.  “If you think this is bad,” I said to one person, “you should hear it out on the campus at Penn.  Ivy League students can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

Indeed, one person after the next marched up to the microphone last night, and in lieu of singing, shouted on a single, quasi-definite pitch from beginning to end of the song.  Incidentally, everyone who did this was under age 35.  Older singers were much, much better.

It is hard to observe something like this and not come to the conclusion that our culture has ceased to exist.  Not everyone can be Frank Sinatra, but only about two generations ago, it was taken for granted that most people could sing something.   Are these young people who publicly sound their barbaric yawps into the karoake machine the product of government funding of arts and arts education?  It’s worth a thought.

More likely, however, they’re the products of households that didn’t see music as a thing to be made, but rather as a product to be consumed.  Turn on the stereo, and listen.  Period.  Music can’t really be learned in this posture any more than I could learn to dunk a basketball by wasting my time watching NBA games.  I went to a music conservatory, but ultimately I first learned how to make music from my parents.  End of story.

The prognosis is not good.  Making it worse is an utter lack of musical discrimination on the part of most people.  More annoying than that, however, is the ridiculous idea that everyone can sing just fine, no matter how bad it sounds.  This is why the tone deaf are not embarrassed to sing in public—and why most people don’t dare to tell them that they stink.

“What, you think you’re better than me?”  Yes, I do.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Standards are how we achieve things; they help us to improve.  Egalitarianism is one of the greatest tyrannies of all, because it prevents what is truly good from being an example to everyone else.

From one kind of murder to another

Barack Obama may be predisposed to commit fewer war crimes than his predecessor, though we must express such hopes with due caution if not downright skepticism, but one area on which he has turned the tables in the Murder-by-State department is abortion.

Obama has promised to push for the passage of FOCA, the Freedom of Choice Act, which among other things would force many healthcare providers to face the choice between performing procedures they find morally reprehensible, or shutting their doors.  So much for freedom.  This sounds to me like coercion, and, as usual, it is brought to you by the State.

But it doesn’t stop here.  Obama has already reversed the Mexico City policy, which under the W. Administration prohibited U.S. funds from going overseas to assist in the procurement of abortions.  Bush’s policy would seem to be the sensible one, for why should my tax dollars provide for a procedure which I find to be abhorent, either in a foreign country, or here at home?  Why should tax dollars support any ill-advised jaunt (such as the invasion of Iraq) that is morally controversial?  (Moreover, why should there be taxes, or the State, period….but I digress…)

Many would perhaps not want to admit it, but the key issue here is one of forcing American citizens to violate their consciences.  Perhaps this is a good sword to fall on, just the place to begin in the long battle against tyranny, for Ron Paul warned a year ago already that many of us would soon be facing tough choices and would have to decide if we were willing to commit civil disobedience.

The issue of abortion is a difficult one.  By saying that I do not mean to imply that I think the morality of it is hard to sort out.  It is difficult because it is hot, and sound reason is getting lost in the heat.   When I was a Statist (God forgive me!), I used to advocate a Constitutionalist approach:  Simply have Congress revoke this issue from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court under Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution.  In all the years of Republican control of Congress, this option was never taken seriously, in spite of the fact that such bills were introduced.  This is one of the reasons that I don’t take the GOP seriously on this issue.

Many more, however, advocate a change in the make-up of the Supreme Court.  Good luck with that.  This is impossible to predict, and even with a pro-life president, even the best nominee is no better than a roll of the dice.  Besides, Article III, Section 2, and all that.

The real problem with trying to solve this through Constitutional means is that the Constitution really doesn’t matter anyway.  If it is true that the Lone Ranger President actually called it “just a G*ddamn piece of paper,” then, well, he’s right, and history proves him right.  The government has massaged, and even rended, the Constitution to get whatever it wants.  Why should it be any different with this issue?

The problem with the issue of abortion is that it would seem that civil law would be ineffective at truly preventing it from happening—as is the case with civil law so much of the time.  Yet, if there were to be no secular protection for the life of the unborn, who would be the defenders of the victims of abortion?  The best solution in the Statist milieu, it would seem, would be local laws that were enforceable.  Repeat:  this is within the Statist milieu.  (I’m dealing with present realities, for a change, but only for one paragraph.  You needn’t worry.)

Would it be better, however, for various religious institutions to institute their own penalties for this crime?  That has its own problems, not the least of which is that someone without religious affiliation would be unaccountable to anyone. Maybe the private common law courts that would be used in the anarcho-capitalist system envisioned by Murray Rothbard could be used to avenge the killing of the unborn.

Incidendentally, I do not accept Rothbard’s idea that the unborn child, being a parasite of its mother, does not have any rights.  It is the foetus’ parasitical nature which leads Rothbard to this conclusion that the unborn is really just property of the mother.  The implications of this, however, are ghastly.  What, then, about the nursing infant?  What about the mentally handicapped or deranged young adult?  What about the elderly, and those considered to be in “vegetative states”?  If being “parasitical” voids one’s rights, then most of our lives would be in danger at one point or another.

What is more, Rothbard really didn’t need to view the unborn as a parasite in order to keep his ethic of liberty consistent.  All one need do is define the unborn life as one belonging to itself, with all the rights that the rest of us have, and there is no problem of consistency.

Of course, that’s ultimately the rub, isn’t it?  In the final analysis, one’s views on abortion are not so much influenced by what one thinks the Constitution does or does not say, or by whether or not one is a Democan, Republikrat, libertarian, or anarchist.  It comes down to what one thinks a foetus is.  After all, if one believes that it is a life, then consistency requires that we stand up for its rights, and if one believes that it is not its own life, then that opens the door to toleration of, or even downright acceptance of, abortion.

We won’t all agree on this subject, and we might even disagree vehemently.  And that is the number one reason why the State should keep its grubby mitts out of the abortion industry.

Help to put an end to abortion by putting an end to the State.

The arts and the public sector

A while back, Aristotle introduced some discussion here about the relationship of the arts to the government–or you might say the relationship of the arts to the government’s money, which is another way of saying the relationship between the arts and the money that the government steals from your back pocket.

I am a musician and have been for my entire life.    I also happen to be opposed to any ties between the artistic world and the government.  Most of my colleagues would disagree with me, and in strong fashion, but there seems to be a number of considerations to which most have not given due reflection.

The foremost aspect of government sponsorship of anything at all is that money equals ownership, and ownership equals decision-making power.  This is not to say that the government, if it were to give money to the local opera house, would own either the building or the operation.  However, in deciding to give or not to give money to a particular endeavor, the State is determining which art is worthy of support and which is not.   They are being the artistic critic.

On what bases are such decisions made?  Art is fundamentally a folk phenomenon (folk in the real sense of that word…..not the hippie sense); it grows organically in the culture.  How can a bureaucracy be the arbiter of such a process?

It is frightening to me that some clown on the public payroll should get to decide which exhibit shows up at the art gallery and which does not.  In this way, the very real potential exists that society’s tastes can be shaped and molded by the art kommisars.  It all smacks of being so……Soviet.

“Ah, but surely as a musician you know that the tastes of the hoi polloi cannot be trusted, for modern man is artistically illiterate.”

Very true, particularly in the realm of music.

Let us consider one aspect of this artistic illiteracy.  (For now, we shall leave aside illiteracy in language which is no less a problem….)  I have friends who are music teachers in various states in the Northeast section of the United States.  Many of them have related to me the drastic cuts which arts education has suffered from W’s No Child Left Behind Act.  Schools, in a mad dash to make sure their students pass unconstitutional federally-mandated standardized tests, are leaving aside everything except reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  One is tempted to say that even these last three are studied only nominally.

As music education is cut, musical illiteracy will increase, and this will create an ever-growing inability amongst the hoi polloi to be artistically discriminating.  This will leave great art to languish, unnoticed, while the dunderheads who immerse crucifixes in jars of piss will be lauded as heroes.  (I am not as concerned about the “offensiveness” of such projects as you might think.  For me the stupidity is quite enough.)

Now this viscious circle seems quite convenient doesn’t it?  The State pulls the plug on arts education….but wait!  Lo!  It comes in as our Savior and rescues the artistic projects it deems to be worthy.  Oh thank you, arts kommisar, for saving me from a world devoid of beauty!  What would I do if it weren’t for you?  (end sarcasm here)

All of this seems to me to be a perfect argument to get the State out of all of this—funding for the arts, and even for arts education and education in general.  Let the smart people and the self-motivated in society create a milieu in which things of beauty can be studied with the deliberation they deserve.

Think I’m dreaming up the impossible?  Read up on monasteries.

Miscellaneous Political Thoughts

The presidential inauguration is barely a day away, and the United States of America is about to engage in a peaceful transition from one form of self-congratulation to another.  Not much change is really in store.

All across America, people are wetting their pants with the anticipation of a new president.  This is partially understandable, given the monstrous tyrants who’ve run this country for the better part of the past decade.  Nevertheless, the remainder of the excitement is, I’m afraid, based upon the legendary short memories of the American electorate, along with that ageless failure to understand human nature, and, more specifically, the nature of politics.

I do not hold any personal animosity toward Barack Obama.  None.  I’m sure he’s a nice guy.  The bottom line, however, is that he is a politician, and politicians practice politics, which is the art of legalized theft and violence.  This art is enacted to coerce one section of society to do something for the benefit of another section of society, usually at the former’s considerable expense or inconvenience.  Moreover, politicians are the consummate Statists and expect the citizenry to be, as well.  When it comes down to it, we all belong to the State in the minds of these bureaucrats.

With all of this in mind, it would be hard to get excited about change even if the next president were a nominally laissez-faire thinker, which Obama most assuredly is not.  At the same time, perhaps my pessimism guards me from the hysterical hooting and hollering of the self-styled conservatives who are still too stupid to know that they ruined their political standing without any help from their enemies and who actually believe that there is a dime’s worth of difference between the Democan and Republicrat parties.  Socialism or Fascism.  Take your pick.

In a sense I miss the days when I was just as susceptible to the moronic emotional vicissitudes of politics as so many others seem to be; it’s as though I have one less sport to watch.  Maybe I’ve been reading too much Albert Jay Nock.  Or maybe I’ve been reading just enough.

I suppose the danger here, however, in the midst of recognizing the intrinsic evil of politics and the insoluble morass that is earthly life in this vale of tears is the temptation to stick one’s nose in the air, declare oneself to be above it all, and then to walk away into isolation.  Then there is the temptation to think that, just because one has ascertained the depth of the moral turpitude of politics, that one is therefore a saint, someone untouched by the ugliness that happens when we men butt heads.

This is foolishness.  In particular, it is utter folly in the case of your humble scribe, for I am a jackass.  I always have been, and I probably always will be, even if I set out to improve society using means other than the political.

But at least I didn’t vote.

Inspiration and Perspiration

I’ve had occasion lately to think about the gift (and the problem) of inspiration.  As a musician, this is central to my life.

One of my middle school art teachers once said that the artist needs to be inspired before he perspires, that one cannot set about an artistic task without a driving force behind it.  I have been of two minds on this issue, but the more of life I get through, the more I think that he was right.  All the self-motivation in the world cannot make up for any lack of inspiration, and the lifeless, or even trite, results of forced artistic work bear this out.

The bigger problem, however, is what to do when one finds himself in the midst of a dry spell.  As a professional musician, I don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, sorry, not feeling inspired today.  Maybe sometime later?  I usually peak around midnight or 2am.”  That’s not feasible, obviously, and the artist, particularly live performers such as musicians, actors, and dancers, need to find ways of dealing with this.  Failure to do so leads to burnout, and burnout can be fatal to the artistic career, and at astoundingly young ages, at that.

To be sure, anyone who’s thought through this will have their own ways of dealing with the problem of inspiration.  Only recently, I found a way of looking at this situation which has the advantage being re-energizing without being contrived.  It is this:  whatever composition one is studying, take the time just to imagine what sort of inspirational experience and/or state of being was required for the composer to come up with such a thing.  Forget compositional technique or theoretical prowess.  Rather, focus on the question of what the driving force behind a given piece of art is.

I must say that this has transformed the way I look at music.  (I should also say that this exercise only works with great music.  Throw away anything that is not spectacular, for it has nothing to say.)  Take, for instance, what Bach did in his Fugue in D Major, BWV 532.  There is in this piece an almost Beethovenian refusal to bring it all to a conclusion, as one joyous exclamation supercedes another.  Without much reflection such repetitiveness can perhaps become annoying, until one asks the question:  What possessed Bach to do this?  We don’t need to know the exact answer to this question, really, but we can surmise to our benefit that, whatever inspired such shouts of exultation must surely have been a grand and glorious thing, and sometimes that is all it takes to renew the artistic soul.

Here’s a recording of the Bach, played by Felix Hell.  (Note, the filmer is a different Michael Lawrence!)

“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart