Audacious Hopelessness

This is a post perhaps better left to my alter-ego, but there is an important musical context, and subtext, that I am compelled to address. I found this yesterday, and unintentionally, and it has been poking at my sense of aesthetics and morality every since, and after a night’s sleep I can’t let it go. So, it must be processed! That’s what blogs are for.

Let me state my biases up-front: I voted for Obama in the New York primary, and would like to see him run against McCain because he beats McCain, while Clinton doesn’t. He beats McCain because of this:

Which Rod Dreher finds objectionable. I must continue to state my biases: Dreher is a member of that particular socio-economic class of recent vintage, the professional ignoramus & scold. I say this because he is paid to demonstrate his ignorance and to scold people who believe, think and act differently than he does. The fact that he has written a book cements my opinion, since that book seeks to create a political demographic, with Dreher at its head. In other words, it’s an attempt to create an artificial market than sell to that market, and it follows the format of consumerist market research, defining people by specific niches based around what they buy, their life-styles, their single-issues. This type of thinking reduces the idea of a human being down to the point of an entry in a relational database and therefore denies the existence of the complex essence of humanity, the soul. It is soullessness in the absolute sense. I would add that it’s strange that someone who claims “belief” in the religious sense would act in a way that demonstrates they have no belief in the existence of the soul, but then I’m long past the point of thinking that self-identified “Conservative Christians” in America believe in anything other than gaining and wielding material, authoritarian power.

So, I find Dreher’s claim that the video demonstrates a cult of personality around Obama to be predictable in a mechanical sense, but there’s further meaning there I want to examine – and bear with me, there’s more music content to come. First of all, in the context of a candidate for his party’s nomination, and referring to a piece of political propaganda, the term has no mean. Unless the subject actual is the leader of a nation, it’s just an ad hominem attack. It’s also an attack that has no bearing or effect when it comes to Dreher, since he has no criticism of the actual cult of personality built around the current president, from the specific – commander codpiece – to the general – the idea that the president is now some kind of superhero and the office requires someone with sufficient “powers” to “keep us safe.” He has no critical, ethical or moral standing to make the charge coherently.

It’s a little pathetic the way he strives to show off his learning (“Stakhanovite”) by criticizing a call to abandon cynicism and ignorance. This puts Dreher on the side of cynicism and ignorance! Now, he clearly is cynical and ignorant, but most members of his professional class think it’s important never to actually admit that. But he’s nothing if not completely unaware of himself – an ignorant cynic complaining that Ryan Phillipe is not himself doing anything to make the world better.

What does Dreher value? It’s impossible to tell. He admonishes a candidate who seeks cut the Gordian Know of Conventional Wisdom that constantly says “No You Can’t.” That’s a comforting thought to those who have their clubby sinecures, I’m sure, and of course if Dreher doesn’t like the Obama video, he must favor this one:

That’s more like it! What is unstated but painfully obvious about this is that Dreher is the kind of conservative who has his, doesn’t want to lose it and is afraid of anything and anyone around him looking different than the claustrophobic horizon of his own smug ignorance. The United States is changing, and whether Obama is the next president, his face is the face of the future (go to here and start down at page 71). He is already the face of California. Dreher is no different than professional racists like Pat Buchanan who scream about the borders, about people who want to be in America, which of course is frightening to the GOP in general because it hates America. The main point of hate and fear is the nexus in popular culture of younger people and music (finally, obligatory music content!). While I’m not sure what Dreher and Buchanan like to listen to at home or in the concert hall, and honestly I think guys like them tend to hate all the arts just as much as the academic life does, I’m glad to point out that popular music culture in America is fundamentally non-white, and has been since its origins. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, it was a fortunate day for America when the first unfortunate slave washed up on her shores.

But to generalize grossly, popular music, as it bubbles up from literally the bottom to eventually take some kind of generic slot in the collective consciousness, always begins as the music of the underclass and the outsider. Blues, jazz, rock, punk, hip-hop all started off at the very bottom, all were scorned and feared by the priggish guardians of morality, all eventually triumphed, even if only for a short-time. And what kind of people fear music in this way? Those who never played an instrument and who certainly never made music in an ensemble. As for as moral training and health goes, I can’t think of anything better than playing music with others. It requires cooperating, empathy and listening to achieve good music-making, whether it’s Brahms or the Blues. It seems to me that these are worthy values, and truly conservative values. Knowledge is also a moral value, and playing music makes one smarter and more curious. Ignorance is a moral failing, and Dreher, being ignorant, is therefore immoral. And since he is a loyal foot soldier in the continued efforts of a very few to decide what is best for the very many, he has an interest in promoting ignorance as a value.

This seems to me the core of the pathetic cult of personality complaint – that there are people in America excited to hear a politician promoting a community of real values, not mere political slogans, excited that someone is engaging them from a positive sense of empathy, listening, cooperation. These are good things, and frightening things to the small-minded, mean-spirited people who prefer fear and division, because they themselves are cowards. The Drehers and Buchanans are taking up arms too late, they’ve already lost this war; a mongrel culture has already defeated them. As far as what’s left, the scraps to fight over are those, again, of belief – Buchanan himself should be pleased that immigration gives the Catholic Church a chance to gain a larger population in America, but he cares more about skin color. Dreher seems to be on the winning side in that fight, and as far as his belief goes, he’s surely on this side. But they’ll never have music. Palestrina, Charlie Parker and Marvin Pontiac are for the rest of us.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


  • Oh man. That McCain video is brilliant. And I voted for Obama in the primary too, but I have to admit that I find that video a little tiresome. If he wins, at least the best-looking people in America will be happy. And I hate to tell you this, but I probably won’t even vote in November. We’ll discuss.

  • I don’t know. My grandmother just claims that Obama is a communist.

    Seriously, though, I do hope very much that he gets the nomination, but I worry that Hillary’s campaign tactics have served to tarnish Obama’s halo, a halo he really NEEDED if the democrats were to have a prayer next year. My sister, engaged to marry an army officer who is heading back out Iraq-ward (or not) based almost entirely on the results of this election, has said that she’ll vote (against her own interests, obviously) for McCain rather than vote for Hillary. Yeah, we all hope Obama gets the nod.

    As far as Dreher goes, it’s a tough call. I can tell you that his book does resonate, in an Alan Ehrenhalt “Lost City” kind of way, with a fair number of my thirtyish “generation.” Call it cynical marketing, but he is saying something that, for whatever reason, we want to hear. Perhaps we’ve been feeling a bit lonely, being the irony generation and all, in our attempts to be decent people, and he’s the first to give voice to that drive?

    I agree, though. There have to be… really, there HAVE to be… better spokesmen than this.

  • I think it would a refreshing for the best looking people in America to be happy, rather than the short, small-minded, cruel and selfish people being happy.

    And the frightened people being happy all the time too – is Communism still the bogeyman? Talk about standing across the path of history and yelling “stop.” Obama, like the next wave of music, is history, while McCain and Clinton are yelling stop. They are the pro-war candidates, and since McCain is even more pro-war than Clinton, I think he beats her. And since Congress has abandoned the Constitution and taken on the role of the preacher’s choir, we get more war, all the time.

    I’m sure Dreher is saying something some people want to hear. So do psychics. But, like it or not, you have to take the whole man. So, good for him that he eats organic produce. So do lots of immigrant-hugging, chardonnay-swilling, abortion-providing, homosexual-agendizing anti-Christian liberals in San Francisco. Why not be on their side? If people want to be on the side of Rod Dreher, professional scold with an quasi-pedophiliac obsession with sexual purity, a desire in politics merely to win power, not actually govern in constructive ways, and a regret not that we are trying to kill as many Iraqis as we can, but only that we are not killing them in properly effective ways, that’s their choice.

    My choice is to think and decide for myself, and I have a preternatural reaction to “thinkers” and “writers” who tell me how I’m supposed to behave, which is “shut the f*ck up.”

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