Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Top Five Misunderstood Songs

What do songs mean?

That's a more difficult question than it sounds. The process of creation is complex, and the writer doesn't always know himself. Lou reed wrote Perfect Day after a walk in Central Park, and that's what he thought it was about. When other people heard it they thought he was writing about drug addiction, and he seemed to believe them. Mike Oldfield wrote Moonlight Shadow shortly after the death of John Lennon, but claimed that wasn't what the song was about. Was he right? Who knows.

However sometimes it is quite clear what the song is not about, and sometimes it's also quite clear the people requesting it really don't get it. So here are my top five misunderstood songs.

Imagine by John Lennon

Is Imagine misunderstood? Surely everyone gets that it's John Lennon's atheist hymn to a more humane world?

Well, yes, but you wonder if he actually got that when he made the video. That really is the ex-Beatle playing a $40,000 piano in his $2 million dollar mansion whilst singing "Imagine no possessions". I wonder if he could?

However Imagine gets on the list because it is our most requested song at funerals.

Now if you actually are a humanist that's all very well and good, although personally I'd go for Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. However as they're about 2% of the population, it isn't humanists who are making Imagine popular. Instead it's people who are nominally Christian sending dear old Aunty Nora's coffin through the curtain to Lennon singing "Imagine there's no heaven."

Perhaps not a bad little thought experiment to carry out, but there's a time and a place for this, surely?

Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

A patriotic American song, often sung by patriotic Americans, who only know the chorus. This is a pity because it's actually a pretty good song, if only you listen to the lyrics.

"Got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hand, Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man" goes the second verse, which should give you an indication this was no simple Redneck hymn.

However that doesn't stop it being your number one singalong classic for 'Make America Great Again' voters. Which, of course, leads to the age old discussion of whether this makes The Boss a hero or a zero. I mean, it's one thing to write an anti-war song that gets banned from the TV, becomes a smash hit and gets sung by half a million hippies at Woodstock (take a bow Country Joe). But to write to an anti-war song that gets sung by Trump voters??!?

As Spinal Tap said, there's a fine line between genius and stupid.

Puff the Magic Dragon by Pete, Paul and Mary

1963 and the sixties were just starting to light up. Everyone was either smoking pot or writing songs about it.

Everyone except Peter Yarrow. Instead Yarrow decided to use a poem, written by a friend of an old housemate, to tell the story of an ageless dragon, left behind when the boy he plays with grows up. It's sad, it's poignant, everyone knows the words, and it's not about drugs.

The problem was nobody believed it wasn't about weed. Within twelve months of the song appearing Newsweek were reporting as fact that the boy's name, 'Jackie Paper', was a reference to rizlas, 'puff' meant smoking, dragon really meant "draggin'", 'autumn mist' meant clouds of smoke, 'Hanah Lea' meant a place in Hawaii marijuana apparently grows really well etc

Yarrow has now spent more than half a century denying this, and not from any puritanical motives. If he wanted to write a song about drugs, he says, I bloomin' well would. Meanwhile, stop corrupting a perfectly innocent song that children love.

Indeed, he appears to be so unrelaxed about the issue that it pretty much proves he isn't on pot.


The One I Love by REM

Romantic songs probably deserve their own category, although usually the problem is lyrics being misheard rather than misinterpreted. Jimi Hendrix not singing "Excuse me while I kiss this guy" has inspired a website.

However this song does achieve a special status, owing to the number of people who request it for their girlfriends in clubs, without actually realising what it's really about.

You should always try to listen to REM lyrics, although that can be quite a challenge. Having spent a lifetime around cars, guns and heavy metal bands, I expect that by the time I retire I won't be able to understand even Brian Blessed without subtitles. And if I want to imagine what this will be like, I just try to make out the lyrics of Radio Free Europe.

The One I Love though, can just about be understood by anyone with normal ears, so there isn't really an excuse for dedicating a song to your True Love that refers to "A simple prop to occupy my time", and where the woman in the last verse is clearly not the same one as in the first.

However, unlike the other entries in this blog, I very much suspect that the lyrics of this song were written to be misinterpreted, and that's it's REM having the last laugh here.

Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams

There are lots of songs that are believed to be really dirty, but in fact aren't. Madonna's Like a Virgin being an example, which has been misunderstood ever since Pulp Fiction came out. However here we have a song that is in fact really dirty, but nobody realises.

Adams came up with a bit of catchy soft rock nostalgia here. Pretty much every thinks the '69' refers to 1969, the year of the moon landings, Woodstock and the end of the hippy dream. Who wouldn't want to remember 1969? The fact that Adams was ten when Country Joe was raggin' at Max Yasgur's farm is, presumably, considered a bit of artistic license.

However Adams has made clear that this is not so. It is about the band he put together at High School, and 'Jimmy' who 'quit' and 'Jody' who 'got married' were real people. The '69' was, and he has stated this on the record, a reference to the quantity and quality of sex they were all having at the time. For some reason though this interpretation hasn't really taken off. Maybe it's the lumberjack shirt?

So some people write clean songs that people think are dirty, some people write dirty songs that sound as if they're clean. Bryan Adams writes a dirty song that sounds dirty, and everyone thinks it's about the Beatles splitting up.

Once again, it's that fine line.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Language of Money

 Newspeak
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.
This is how George Orwell described the new language that Big Brother was creating in 1984,  a language that would make it impossible for the citizens of Oceania to ever again discuss the old freedoms that they had once enjoyed.

In the world of 'Brexit means Brexit' and 'alternative facts' it certainly seems to be coming true. However in another realm of human existence it already has come true, and most of us never even noticed.

Monetarised

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister she ushered in a radical new economic doctrine,
monetarism. From now on the only interactions that mattered were financial ones. Profits were more important than people and money was to be set free to invade very part of our lives.

It was new theory, that had been gestating since just after the Second World War, and which had recently been trialed in Chile. That had required tanks and torture chambers, but the revolution in the UK, and in America the next year, was more peaceful.

So why didn't we resist? I think because we were lost for words.

"Moneydoesn't talk, it swears"*

Think about these words; value, wealth, debt. Do they have clear meanings?

Do you 'value' a friendship in the same way you 'value' your shares? Clearly not, but how do you tell which meaning is which? Do you 'value' your record collection like your friends, or your shares? How about your house, or your lover? Would you sell, or buy, either? Perhaps I'd better not ask.

Then what do we mean by 'wealth'? Is it just the collective monetary value of things, or does it have a broader meaning? When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, he did not the mean the same thing as John Ruskin, when he wrote 'There is no wealth but life'? But that was then, what about now?

Finally there's 'debt'. We have a national debt, prisoners pay their debt to society, and we owe a debt to our parents. The national debt usually means what we owe the banks, not what we owe those who died fighting fascism. However it's not just in Monopoly that you can buy your way out of jail, and you can certainly end up in jail if you don't pay your debts, although we do generally try to pretend this isn't the case. But what about the debt to our parents, assuming they were good parents that is. If they were bad parents we'd be talking about their debt to you. Either way, can this ever be turned into money?

The parents of nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton appeared to think so. On his twentifirst birthday his father presented him with a bill for all the costs incurred in bringing him up, including the fee to the Doctor who delivered him. Seton paid up, and never spoke to his dad again. No birthday cards, Sunday visits or worrying about which care home to put him in, he had paid his debt and that was that.

Seton may well be the exception that proves the rule, but it still appears that, like those citizens of Oceania, we have completely lost the vocabulary to talk about interactions in anything other than monetary terms.

Oldspeak


This becomes a major problem when we talk about resources we hold in common, particularly Nature.  

When we value Nature, what do we mean? We may say you can't put a price on a beautiful view, or clean air, but it can certainly increase the value of your house. Both a Thatcherite and an environmentalist would no doubt consider The Lake District to be part of the wealth of the nation, although only one would consider selling it off. 

Our current model of economics considers natural resources a free gift from Nature. The only argument is whether their value should be measured by what it takes to get them out of the ground, or what someone is prepared to pay for them. That's like valuing your lover by how much you spent wooing her, or how much you can pimp her for after dark. 

But then if we lack words that allow us to distinguish the bonds that bind us through love and affection, from those of work and commerce, this debate become difficult, to say the least.

That's why when I write these blogs, I sometimes end up sounding like a mystical old hippy. If I say the land is not just valuable, but sacred, you know quite clearly that I will not exchange it for money. If I say my connection with nature is spiritual, you know it is different to my relationship with my bank balance.

Perhaps we need a new language, one that can't be mistaken for the language of money. Let's recognise this Newspeak for what it is, and talk about Nature in words our ancestors would recognise. 

Let's not speak the language of money, but of the trees.

* Bob Dylan It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) 

Further Reading

David Graeber Debt The First 5000 Years 
J B Foster, B Clark, R York The Ecogical Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth

Friday, 3 March 2017

Communication Management Units: America's Political Prisons

He had sat silent against the wall, jostled by dirty bodies, too preoccupied by fear and the pain in his belly to take much interest in his surroundings, but still noticing the astonishing difference in demeanour between the Party prisoners and the others. The Party prisoners were always silent and terrified, but the ordinary criminals seemed to care nothing for anybody ... The positions of trust were given only to the common criminals, especially the gangsters and the murderers, who formed a sort of aristocracy. All the dirty jobs were done by the politicals.
George Orwell 1984
The history of prisons is not what most people think it is.

Until modern times they were for holding the accused before trial. Then they were for debtors, before finally becoming places where criminals could 'pay their debt to society'. Previously punishment had been public and painful, now it was private and, physically at least, painless. But as well as debtors and criminals, prisons were also used to house the politically undesirable.

One of the reason the use of the stocks fell out of favour in England was that Luddites and other radicals could use them as pulpits to preach their message, and the general populace were more likely to listen than throw things. Prisons kept the radicals away from the exploited masses. Orwell, a journalist as well as an author, knew this. He also knew full well how the political prisoners were treated differently to the ordinary lags.

What?

There is a prison system within a prison system in America called Communication Management
Units.

In CMUs the inmate's contact with the outside world is greatly restricted. Regular prisoners are allowed 56 hours a month of visits. In the high security Supermax prisons, where the most dangerous and violent prisoners are held, this is 35 hours a month. The CMUs allow just a single, one hour visit each week, and this is behind glass. Ordinary prisoners are allowed five hours of phone calls a month. In the CMUs it is just fifteen minutes a week, and these need to be in office hours and book more than a week ahead. Letters, usually unrestricted in prisons, are limited and read first by the authorities.

How?

These units are not for the most dangerous, or badly behaved criminals. They go to the Supermaxes. Nor are they for the people who murder abortion doctors or commit their crimes in pursuit of their sick, far right ideology. They stay in mainstream prisons, where their first First Amendment rights to free speech are respected. CMU are almost exclusively for Islamists, and those convicted of crimes in pursuit of environmental or animal rights campaigns.

In other words what decides who goes in a CMU is their religion or their political beliefs.

Why?

CMUs are not designed to rehabilitate the prisoners. How could they be when all experience says that prisoners benefit from contact with the outside world? Hugging your wife or holding your baby makes prisoners want get out and stay straight.

We can probably all guess why the Muslims are in CMUs. But what's with the environmentalists?
ELF activist and former CMU inmate Daniel McGown

One theory is that is is just to make the CMUs appear more ethnically mixed. In the same way that white dominated companies might employ a black bouncer on the door to appear diverse, the eco-warriors make the CMUs a bit whiter.

However that doesn't explain why it's only environmentalists and animal rights activists who get sent there. Anti-abortionists are just as white as environmentalists, and the far right tend not to have too many blacks or Muslims amongst their number.

The only conclusion is that a deliberate choice has been made to put the Greens in. Extreme racists and anti-abortionists are a challenge for law enforcement officers, but they are not a threat to the ruling political ideology. Or to corporate profits. We are.

Indeed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which many of those in CMUs have been convicted under, specifically defines 'terrorism' as an act causing "loss of any property", including profits.

So far these units are only on the other side of the pond, but what happend in the USA tends to happen here before too long. We should all of us be worried about CMUs.

References

Michel Foucalt Discipline and Punish
E P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class
Will Potter Green is the New Red