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"They" . . . and Honor to Lester Bangs

From here in the San Francisco Bay area in the most recent month have come a couple more exhibitions of the finger-pointing good liberals like to indulge.  In the Sunday, April 10 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle, Margee Ensign, a dean at the University of the Pacific, had an op ed piece lamenting the extents of American ignorance of the world.  As dean of the international studies program at her institution, she had excellent turf motives to signal her laments – that more Americans could attend programs such as she leads.  She also wanted to drum up attendance for an event at her school that evening, when a president of an African country would be appearing as honored guest.

A few days later, Wednesday evening, April 13, at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, Orville Schell took the stage to receive a lifetime achievement award from a conglomeration of local literary groups.  In his comments on receiving the award, Schell spoke as the chair that he is of the graduate program in journalism at the University of California Berkeley campus, just across the Bay.  "Why don't they listen to us" was the gist of his remarks – for which he had no answer, just chagrin that "they" – mainly those in power in Washington – don't listen or don't need to listen to anyone outside the corporate classes that Congress serves.  Schell's plaint:  that "they" should listen to people like "us" – especially in view of the ongoing, badly-planned war in Iraq, the out-of-control national debt, middle-class job drain, deeper ruts for the working poor, badly broken health care system, worse dependence on sprawl-addicting fossil fuels, and deteriorating public sectors of schools, parks, libraries, and transport.

The fact that "they" won't listen to "us" glides into the facts of how the super rich of our corporate classes are getting astronomically richer.   These facts show in how Republican and Democrat alike in Washington go on serving an agenda that, as Jonathan Alter wrote in the April 25 Newsweek, "comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted."  In the first months alone of the new Congress, it has closed bankruptcy protections to the working poor and middle class, restricted lawsuit actions against corporate powers, refused to raise a minimum wage keeping millions of working poor sinking further, and gutted environmental regulations to please the corporate polluting interests.  Congress meanwhile gave itself another pay raise, gave fossil fuel industrialists billions in subsidies, and lobbyists and the very rich more billions in tax loopholes.

University of the Pacific Dean Ensign and UC-Berkeley chair Schell have good reason to point their fingers.  We indeed live in cliché scenarios of craven exploitation.  But will extended fingers help? – especially when both good liberals made their remarks also exhibiting their own good elevation?  Schell made no effort to connect his concerns to any individual in the audience in front of him – as if the room were empty of anyone with related concerns.  Ensign made no effort to cite any cultural life in any countries of the world, where she laments Americans as being deficient in excitement.

Writing in the recent March-April Mother Jones, Garret Keizer noted his chagrin at those with fingers extended.  More a liberal lefty himself, he admitted that those with far right righteousness understand posturing much better than do those on his side.  A former Episcopalian minister, now living in the remote, rural, northeastern corner of Vermont, Keizer respects how, whatever else they do, fingers on the far right point to values for which most Americans hunger – values many feel lacking in modern life.  Never mind that the millions of those who hunger for values do so while tootling about in expensive cars and SUVs, in sprawl culture, where "community" gathers primarily in WAL*MART and similar consumerism oases.  Bush-Cheney-Rove-Frist-Delay-Limbaugh-Fox News have reserved "values" for their side, and have been geniuses orchestrating fingers at "liberals" as if this other side's secular humanism, trust in science, and love of foreign films, food, and related multiculturalism have only been afflicting us with anemia.

The Pope – the new one, former Hitler Youth, now Benedict XVI – joins the conservative righteous chorus.  In his first remarks assuming office, he lashed out at the "emptiness" of much of the modern world, as if, again, materialism were a global miasma with no values, or only false ones, in thrall to Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and those secular humanists with their evolution, genetics, and love of rain forests.

So great to play the pointing-fingers game.

But let's look a bit more closely at the clichés about materialism.  Those "things," sure, may be empty – if we isolate them as objects.  As parts of our lives, however, "stuff" morphs into parts of our stories, no longer empty of values, nor superficial or ornamental.  Especially cultural stuff.  All of us everywhere in the world live by our cultural tools, resources, and instruments.  They reveal us.  They tell our stories.  They locate and can re-direct our humanity.  Cultural "stuff" is as vital for humans as oxygen and water are for vegetable life and fetuses, with five categories mediating every one of us:  1)  landscape architecture, 2) clothing, 3) food presentation, 4) building architecture, and 5) travel modes.  We may choose these styles, or others may for us (the rub of fixing these choices = our individuality), but no one can inhabit these five categories free of the dynamics of how they mediate us.  The Pope, bless his privileged heart, may look at the massed items of the material world and fail to see the human spirits they propel.  He may jump instead to finger spiritual emptiness – in others.   For him there's lots of emptiness apart from how he takes for granted his paintings, choral music, sculpture, mosaics, cathedrals, jewelry, and vestments of long-flowing skirts in white, gold, and scarlet.

The Pope flatters himself.  We all do when we look at others and fail to see that they, too, have stories – human dimensions and spiritual hungers and tensions – all quite necessarily interwoven in the stuff all inhabit.   The person on whom the Pope's church was founded spent a good amount of time in his day among people who did not live cushioned in the cultural opulence this Pope casually equates with spirituality.  But, then, that person of two thousand years ago never pointed fingers merely to show his elevation over the rest of us.  He asked instead that we try to see others as we might ourselves.

Priests, politicians, and pedagogues, as normal authorities, model for us the pointing of fingers in generalized denials of humanity they do not want to see.  Others excel, however, in finding life rich in the spirits of surprise, nuance, and multiply-leveled complications.  We call these others artists.  And we rely on them – we rely chiefly on our musicians, film makers, writers, and poets – to tell us how our different landscapes, clothes, foods, buildings, and other parts of material culture harbor and propel souls.

Our normal authorities, tenured in their systems and hierarchies, love to pretend guarantees – and they're right:  they do marvelously well in turning out those who similarly want to be careerist clones.  But there's no guarantee that any of us can be artists – and certainly not that we can be better humans – merely by focusing on cultural stuff.  Landscape, clothing fashions, fast food or long, leisurely meals, and buildings animate us – as do cars:  just think of how we went car-crazy into sprawl with hymns as various as "Rocket '88," "Maybelline," "Beep Beep," "Teen Angel," "Tell Laura I Love Her," "Little Deuce Coupe," "Dead Man's Curve," "G.T.O.," "Little Old Lady from Pasadena," "Last Kiss," "Nadine," and "No Particular Place to Go."  Cultural items animate us, but they do so in no formulaic ways anyway can track (though some good critics catch good glances).  "It's not about technique," wrote Lester Bangs.  The great rock critic who died in 1982 – lately renown as the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Cameron Crowe film, Almost Famous – writhed at suggestions that protocols, routines, and other methodologies could distill art.  In "Notes for Review of Lost Highway" Bangs wrote, "It's not about virtuosity, twenty-five years at Juilliard, contrapuntal counterpoint, the use of 6/8 time in a Latin-tinged context."  Great music – the first bridges to unite the races in America – most vitally came about, Bangs said, at Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis.  This was more than 50 years ago, in the late 1940s and early e50s when, "Everybody at Sun was white trash."  But the music began to shake the country.  It opened us up with the unorthodox logic that, "The whole point of American culture is to pick up any old piece of trash and make it shine with more facets than the Hope Diamond."  No guarantees by stations of the cross or rosaries.  No guarantees by research protocols or advanced degrees.  None for polling or lobbyist pay-offs.

Homage to Lester Bangs.  The person who edited Bangs' essays into book form (Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) was Greil Marcus, who himself has a book just out.  His new Like a Rolling Stone continues Bangs' championing of the bravery it takes to break out of the molds of conventional thinking.  The great Bob Dylan song, "Like a Rolling Stone," whose history Marcus recounts, itself was perhaps rock'n'roll's greatest dare to all its listeners to face the fact that most of us spend much too much time and energy sucking up to power, to the securities of hierarchy and orthodoxy, the comfort of repetition, and conventionality's soporific promises and dead soul authorities.  "How does it feel?" asked Dylan, when we awake from our narcotizing lies.

Can we access the scenarios of people, the spiritual hum in public roles?  Essaying Differences says yes, that it starts with looking at real people inhabiting cultures.  We may not be artists yet, but on that road, essaying such arts of literacy as may yet connect us.

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