The Freshmen: A Slideshow about Pain, Triumph, Loss, and Lots of Suffering, Awful People

The Freshmen: A Slideshow about Pain, Triumph, Loss, and Lots of Suffering, Awful People

Previously posted on The Daily Kos. I really had not intended for this slideshow to be quite so bleak. Once I came up with the idea of using The Verve’s Pipe’s “The Freshmen,” a powerfully moving song apparently written about the suicide of lead singer Brian Vander Ark’s girlfriend, as a way of addressing the political and emotional fallout from the election, it to some degree took on a life of its own, almost in spite of my conscious intentions. Frankly, it’s probably the bleakest thing I’ve done since “UKnowYourReichs,” a slideshow about Holocaust denial set to Kurt Cobain’s last song, a song which (to me anyway) seemed to look forward fairly obviously to his own suicide about a month after Nirvana recorded it. That slideshow was in part inspired by Night Will Fall, Andre Singer’s 2014 documentary about the liberation of the Concentration Camps at the end of WWII. Although I was by no means completely unfamiliar with the material, the film made a deep impression on me when I first saw it about three months ago, so deep that the documentary seemed more like a prophecy of things to come than a a record of events safely compartmentalized in the past.

Like Bitter Salt, this slideshow began as an attempt to find common ground in the shared experience of pain, with idea of moving beyond it to mutual cooperation if not necessarily shared understanding.  Tea partiers and progressives may listen to different media outlets, have different circles of friends, have completely different concepts of the historical and  philosophical bases for American society, and radically opposed concepts for what goals we hope America might become; nevertheless, as human beings we all suffer, and all those other diametrically divergent attitudes are—at least in part—our attempts to deal with our individual experience of pain, trauma, and isolation. Even our “fearless leader” (apologies to fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I just can’t bring myself to say Hair Furor’s actual title), strikes me as a deeply damaged human being, a damage at least in part the product of his family life, education, experiences, as well as of his own bad choices and their often destructive consequences.

Certainly one of the ideas behind The Verve Pipe song is that we make bad choices, often self-destructive or destructive of those around us,  because we don’t necessarily have the wisdom or the life experience to make good choices. To make explicit an implicit conceit of the song, at some point we are all “freshmen,” doing ignorant and even stupid things in stupid ways because we don’t know any better, and because we are too wrapped up in our own pain to acknowledge that of others, at least until it is too late. The repeated and increasingly unconvincing refrain, “I can’t be held responsible,” paradoxically communicates the deep and overwhelming sense of responsibility the singer feels, as well as his understandable and all-too-common desire to blame the other party (after all, like an abused spouse, she’s responsible too because “She fell in love in the first place”).

I am certain that in compiling this slideshow I was playing with the not wholly accurate media portrayal of the Tea Party movement and the “average” Trump voter as—to some extent—political neophytes easily manipulated by a corporate media and political demagogues who cynically exploited these people’s pain for their own ends, ends that were often destructive of the very people that they purported to represent and to help, as well as targeting a host of relatively powerless “others” who could be identified by their darker skin, problematic citizenship, differing sexual orientation, or divergent religious and philosophical beliefs, all of whom merited by their very existence at the very least exclusion and—if Tea Partiers were truly being honest about it—their systematic destruction.

Certainly one thing that struck me in gathering the photos for this slideshow is how fervent the devotion of many Trump supporters were to their leader. While it is difficult if not impossible to truly divine what people are thinking from their facial expressions and body language, with a remarkable number, it looks an awful (and I do mean awful) lot like love, which itself raises questions about how such a beneficent emotion could have such toxic results? I suspect, as the opening  slides try to suggest, such tensions are deeply embedded in our human nature, and are certainly evident in the dark (and largely officially suppressed) side of American history. Similarly, I chose the last verse and chorus of the Ben Folds Five “Brick” (a song about the songwriter’s trip to an abortion clinic with his high school girlfriend over Christmas break), because it is one of the saddest songs I think I have ever heard, perfectly expressing the isolation, grief, and overwhelming pain caused by the experience which (to tie it back to The Verve Pipe song) the couple in question were simply not emotionally ready for, being “freshmen” in their own way. Although it isn’t directly stated in the song, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the relationship didn’t survive the trauma of that fateful day over the Christmas holidays.

The two brief film clips—only the second time I’ve tried to include them in a slide show (the first was (“UKnowYourReichs”)—also seem even more significant than they did when I first thought to include them. The first portrays the suicide of a gay German Jew, Albrecht Stein, the lover of the tortured hero of Before the Fall, while the second—from the 2008 horror movie Quarantine—shows the professional woman lead character Angela (a TV reporter) being dragged off into the terrifying darkness by rabid, zombie-like people who really don’t seem much like people at all anymore. The images of the two falling or being pulled into nothingness are both similar, horrifying, and haunting. The point about the dangers of being in a marginal group are almost too obvious to belabor, although one has the sense that being part of the powerful “in” group—whether being a Nazi or an uninfected male—offers no more than a brief reprieve in our collective, ever-accelerating plunge into the abyss.

It seems silly to say I hope you like slideshow, which takes two songs about deeply individual feelings of guilt and transform them into a means of exploring our collective guilt (at least I’ve given you fair warning about what’s coming), but I hope you are moved by it, and that some of that emotional rearrangement might result in positive action.

They Moved the Moon: The California Genocide; a slideshow set to two Warren Zevon Songs

They Moved the Moon: The California Genocide; a slideshow set to two Warren Zevon Songs

Also posted, in slightly different form, about four days ago on The Daily Kos. This diary and the slideshow which accompanies it, were inspired by Meteor Blades’ diary of June 25th, “On the 141st Anniversary of Custer’s Well-Remembered Last Stand, why is California’s Genocide Forgotten?” As a native Californian, albeit of European ancestry, I was wondering how I could have missed this, although I was certainly aware of the controversy surrounding Father Junipero Serra’s sanctification, as well as more vaguely aware of the lynchings, riots, and institutional racism occasionally (as I then thought) practiced against Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese Americans, and African-Americans. I was not aware of how systematic, murderously successful, and popularly and legally prevalent it was. When Meteor Blades’ title asks how people could have forgotten it, I found myself asking how I could have forgotten it? The answer is, as I am sure is true for most white Californians, is that we never learned about it in the first place, and what scraps we did know were largely the product of a highly selective and—let’s face it—whitewashed popular culture (as I remember, there were a couple of episodes of Bonanza—and I think one of Gunsmoke—that dealt with racism against Chinese immigrants, and every two or three seasons one of the longer running westerns would have an episode that would at least obliquely address unfair treatment of Native Americans).

Not to rehearse Meteor Blades well-researched and far superior diary, he recounts the steady, popularly-supported decimation of California’s indigenous population:

There was one massacre after another after another after another, in each of which more California Indians were killed than were soldiers of Custer’s regiment in Montana. White Californians, the vast majority of them newcomers, had reduced the California Indian population to about 30,000 by 1873.

Even more appalling (although not so surprising, given that I had been living in East Texas for twenty years by this time, so I was perfectly aware not only that such things had happened in the past, but that they were still going on), were the ways in which the legal, judicial, electoral, and economic systems were manipulated so that Native Americans could be rendered powerless, exploited, stolen from, and murdered with impunity, with the public support of both politicians and many local newspapers. According to Benjamin Madley in the Los Angeles Times (quoted at greater and even more horrifying length in Meteor Blades’ diary),

California’s Legislature first convened in 1850, and one of its initial orders of business was banning all Indians from voting, barring those with “one-half of Indian blood” or more from giving evidence for or against whites in criminal cases, and denying Indians the right to serve as jurors. California legislators later banned Indians from serving as attorneys. In combination, these laws largely shut Indians out of participation in and protection by the state legal system. This amounted to a virtual grant of impunity to those who attacked them.

Institutionalized racism and oppression thus go back to the very roots of California statehood, by no means limited to Orange County or South Central, as sometimes seems to be case in media portrayals. Of course, racism, brutality, and forced conversions dated back to the very founding of the Spanish Mission system, but there were qualitative and quantitive differences once the Gold Rush started and California joined the United States as it hurtled towards civil war. As Iberian points out in his comment on Meteor Blades’ diary:

The Spanish system and missions where oppressive, abusive and murderous but they were not genocidal. There wasn’t any intent of eliminating the native population. After the gold rush and statehood the native populations were intentionally exterminated, and the mixed and Spanish/Mexican populations prosecuted, assaulted and dispossessed in many cases, other Hispanics that came also for the gold rush also assaulted and the anti-Chinese hysteria raging in pogroms. All of it not only sanctioned by local and state officials but at the request of the local government and even California Senators in DC. Ethnic cleansing in California has a horrible history the worse for the native populations, but extending to many other ethnic groups.

As I remember, when I studied the local Native American tribes of Kern County back in grammar school, they were presented quite sympathetically: I still remember watching short films showing how the local natives ground acorns and made meal, while men hunted deer and participated in fascinating sweat lodge ceremonies. I realize now, of course, how dangerously easy it is to romanticize a people who essentially no longer exist. Such appropriated but conveniently invisible peoples provide one’s existence with history, continuity, and a kind of Edenic past; while by their absence they make no claims upon you in the present. With this in mind, here is a slideshow set to Warren Zevon’s “They Moved the Moon” and “Join Me in L.A.” I had considered using his brilliant “Carmelita” in the second half, but I must admit I kind of like it this way. Although probably not as well known, “Join Me” has a kind of snarky energy, and permits an ending of hopeful defiance—if not of optimism—about the future (I also learned a bit about the Tongva and other tribes that inhabited the Los Angeles basin, so the song allowed me to focus the slideshow even more locally in its second half). I had already done a slideshow on Holocaust denial, and another on the persecution of marginal groups from the Middle Ages to the present, but I felt maybe it was time to explore something more uncomfortably close to home. Anyway, here it is—while the slideshow doesn’t begin to do justice to the magnitude of the event, it does do something. What that is, remains for you to decide:

Slave to the Algo(Rhythm): A Grace Jones inspired Slideshow on Math, Alienation, Inequality, and Oppression

Slave to the Algo(Rhythm): A Grace Jones inspired Slideshow on Math, Alienation, Inequality, and Oppression

Previously published (in slightly different form) on The Daily Kos. I had the rather unpleasant experience of being in prison lately. It wasn’t a surprise, in that it was a result of an arrest back in January that itself was the result of my own stupidity and despair. In essence, I turned myself into the court (as required) on Thursday morning at the end of June, went on the bus down to the County Jail around Thursday noon, and was in fact released by about one o’clock Friday afternoon. As the Torah I had brought to read was confiscated (I had been incorrectly told that you could bring a religious book—in fact you can’t bring anything from the outside at all without having it taken away at some point). Also taken (as I expected) were my self-phone, medication, a small amount of cash, and shoe laces, all of which were taken away at the local court where I was first processed, and then the rest of my clothes were exchanged for not totally unattractive prison blues and slippers when I arrived at County.  I never actually got assigned a bed, but—having identified myself as a member of a “special” population—was kept in a holding cell all night with other members of my “group.” Some seemed like nice people, some not so nice, and some simply disturbed; but the same could be said about the guards, deputies, and prison staff in more or less equal proportions.

Physically, the most unpleasant part was how cold it got, especially towards the end of the night, as it was impossible to get blankets or sheets, I suppose on the rationale that a prisoner’s death from hypothermia or exposure was easier to explain than suicide by bedsheet or blanket (although—if you were really determined to kill yourself and didn’t mind your corpse being partially unclothed—I’m pretty sure your prison-issued trousers would work just as well).  Psychologically, the worst part was the sense that you didn’t exist, as it quickly became apparent how practiced prison employees were at ignoring the inmates in this holding cell. You could actually see them turn to avert their eyes as they approached the long glass window that faced the prison corridor which basically everyone had to walk down in order to complete their processing and get assigned a bed and—I imagine—privileges like being able to get a book from the prison library.  When they reached the end of the long glass window, their heads would snap back, so they could see us (at most) out of the corner of their eye. Although decals on the windows told us in emphatic terms to contact the guards if someone tried to commit suicide, there seemed to be no way to do this, even if they were only a few feet away on the other side of the glass. Presumably, if you splashed enough blood on the windows, one of the more compassionate and observant guards would eventually notice. Please go below the fold for more, and a cool video I made.

My attorney had e-mailed me that I would be reporting for my 96 hour sentence with two days credit for time served. So I was surprised to discover on Thursday morning that the court had no record of my two days credit (my lawyer was not present) A number of people told me I might be released early, but it was unclear was who made the decision about early release, as it didn’t seem to be the bailiff or the judge I appeared before (it wasn’t really a hearing or a trial, just an appearance).  One of the sheriffs at the local jail explained that it was all based on how crowded the jail was and what category of prisoner you were. That’s when I understood: the decision would be made not be any human being, but by a computer that had been programed by human beings based on algorithms that they had designed at the behest of their employers. While I was certainly aware of algorithms, especially in terms of how they are used in Search Engines, the experience really brought home how much they have come to dominate virtually every aspect of modern life: not only search engines but the legal system, the financial sector, advertising, and even–increasingly—the arts.

As with firearms, there is nothing inherently bad about algorithms, but they can easily used for biased, unethical, or just plain evil purposes by human beings. As the old saying goes, numbers don’t lie, but people lie with numbers.  They inevitably reflect the biases and petty concerns of the people who design them and—too a much greater degree—the people who hire those programmers to design them. Anyway, I came up with the idea for this slideshow last Friday night around midnight, after I had gotten tired of playing find the shape in the stain (oh look, this one resembles a dinosaur; here’s one that looks like a turd, oh no, wait—I think it is . . . I think I’ll move further away). I actually had a copy of the eponymous Grace Jones album that “Slave to the Rhythm” was released on back in the eighties (a slightly different mix than the one I use for the slideshow), although I haven’t seen or listened to it in years.  By the way, I am not saying we should get rid of all algorithms, which is probably impossible as they are essentially hard wired into us, but merely that we should stop and think about what we are doing so that the algorithms we make will actually promote equity, fairness, and even connection to our fellow, suffering human brothers and sisters. It almost comes across as a joke when you state it like that, which is itself kind of sad. Anyway, here is the slideshow:

Season of the Witch: Revisited

Season of the Witch: Revisited

“Season of the Witch” was so unlike Donovan’s generally optimistic, New Age-anticipating, romantic catalog that I always sort of assumed it was a cover (and I actually had a copy of his Greatest Hits growing up that plainly lists him as the writer).  The song’s sense of dislocation and paranoia, of things falling apart, seemed a world away from “Mellow Yellow,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” or “Sunshine Superman,” even if you were never totally sure what the latter song was about.  Nevertheless, I loved his version of “Season,” and I still consider it about the best out there.

The slideshow was an interesting one to make, in that I started seeing connections between things, such as witch hunts and anit-semitisim, eugenics and white power, Hair Furor and King Leopold, that I had never really thought of as having much relation before. I also had no idea James Garfield had such a way with words, at least until he was assassinated. I originally planned it as examination of anti-Semitism, but it ended up becoming much broader than that, for better or worse, which is really for you to decide.

I was interested in the topic of Anti-Semitism, in part because–although I was raised as a Catholic and have no Jewish relations as far as I know–it seemed as if at least once a year a complete stranger would stop me on the street and ask me if I was Jewish. Sometimes they accepted my slightly apologetic denials without further questioning, although occasionally they could be quite persistent, seemingly absolutely certain about their identification. I, after all, had only my memories, as well as my personal and familial experience, to go on; they had . . . what, exactly?  Whatever it was, at least some of them seemed to have absolute faith in their ability to “divine” a Jew. I have to admit, it happened with enough regularity up until middle age, that I found myself wondering about what it was  that they were reacting to? My hair (dark, but not stereotypically curly), my nose (big but not hooked), my glasses (I never had the impression that bad eyesight was an ethnic or religious signifier)?  Could they be privy to some information about myself that had been kept hidden from me? Perhaps they wanted to invite me to some ultra-cool, ultra-exclusive party? Maybe they just wanted to put my name on a list for some mysterious future purpose, not necessarily a malevolent one, although I couldn’t help wondering a little.

I never really felt threatened, partly because these encounters usually took place on relatively populous, public streets, usually in the afternoon, and the tone of the questions usually came across as interested rather than hostile. Certainly, many people take pride in their ability to identify and “size up” other people, although I couldn’t escape drawing the conclusion that many such people aren’t nearly as expert at it as they seemed to think. I have no doubt they were right some of the time, but that isn’t really a very impressive trick of discernment. In any event, at about the time I turned forty, this annual ritual of mis-recognition evolved into a more benign form. Instead of being asked if I was Jewish, I started to be asked (again, by complete strangers) if I were Steven Spielberg? I quickly developed what seemed to be a convincing comeback for this: “No; he’s thinner, richer, and more talented than I am.” Rather to my disappointment, no one ever continued to insist that I was Spielberg in spite of my denials; my contention that I was overweight, not terribly rich, and not terribly talented was just so obviously, so empirically, so intuitively true, that they usually laughed, nodded, and walked away. No one, of course, ever asked who I was, but I have a feeling that this is not a question that gets asked much in modern American society, which may itself be symptomaic of the problems addressed in this slideshow:

Despite its rather bleak perspective on human beings, I hope somebody can take something positive out of it.

Substitute: Richard Donald Milhouse John Nixon Trump

Substitute: Richard Donald Milhouse John Nixon Trump

Previously posted, in somewhat different form, on The Daily Kos. The Who song “Substitute” always seemed to be a perfect description of how I lived my life, displacing or substituting easier or less anxiety-producing people, goals, and life perspectives for ones that I seemed unwilling or unable to cope with. Studying medieval literature and religion thus substituted for the Catholicism I was raised in, my mentor became a kind of substitute father who I felt it was at least possible to please, and alcohol replaced romantic relationships. Everybody does this to some degree, in part simply because circumstances or the inner drives of our personalities force us to.

This slideshow applies this playful early Who song to our current president, who of course displaced Obama (displacement being basically part of how our political system is structured), a change that I believe represents a yearning to return to an even earlier time and president when—at least in the cultural memory of certain segments of the electorate—“other” people knew their place and ethical behavior was neither practiced nor really expected as long as a superficial respectability and deniability was maintained, even in the face of considerable factual evidence.

On a personal level, you don’t usually actually marry your Mom, but you might marry someone who styles their hair in a remarkably similar way; when booze loses its ability to depress your anxiety or create a false sense of self-confidence, you find other substances or life strategies to substitute for it. In its extreme form, you end up living a kind of fake life, in which legitimacy is conferred by status symbols and your ability to get other people—and by a kind of feedback loop even yourself—to accept them as authentic. Oh well, before digging myself into a hole I can’t get out of by pretending to a knowledge of human psychology and motive that I don’t actually have, here’s the brief slideshow. This is the 2nd version of “Substitute” from The BBC Sessions album (a kind of substitute “Substitute”), which I liked for its crispness, concision, and the overt sarcasm in Roger Daltrey’s vocals, which is much more muted in some of the group’s more pop recordings of the song. I kept the count in, possibly as a symbol of inevitable repetitiveness of such behavior, but mostly because it sounds pretty cool.

By the way, that rather cryptic photograph I picked to illustrate the lyric, “the simple things you see are all complicated,” showing Woody Guthrie, Trump looming over an apartment block, and Trump’s father Frederick, refers to this story, which I hadn’t been aware of before. Speaking of things I had not been aware of, here is a possibly even more danceable, and even more depressing vision than the one above. Here is a song–not from half a century ago, but from “Now,” that I ran into about five minutes ago, and was apparently first posted to YouTube two (now three) days ago. Wow. This so nails me, or at least the me of a just a few months ago.  It doesn’t help that the “viewer” character who ages during the video really comes to look like a thinner me, the fear is certainly there in the eyes, giving way to a kind of tired, hungover stare. If the Townshend song focuses on how substitution works in personal relationships, the Moby song wants to illustrate its psychological cost in the most devastating way possible.  Anyway, although I had nothing to do with this video, it seems to be about me, and this is a personal blog, so I’m posting it here.

Apart from a considerable production budget, Moby’s singing, writing, arranging talent, and producing his song and the video attached to it, and his rather penetrating ability to express the depressive mind and how it reacts to the world around it, what’s his got that mine hasn’t?