Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

Advertisements

Where I Stand

December 20, 2016

I’d originally intended to write this piece after Clinton won the election to explain why I couldn’t vote for her. I’m writing it anyway. It’s meant to explain where I stand culturally/politically.

I was born into a mainstream “moderate to conservative” (I put the words in quotes because I think they’re deceptive) Democratic Party household. Eugene McCarthy’s near upset of Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary inspired me to leave the fold. I became what would be described today as an “ultra liberal.” Then, with the election of Richard Nixon, I dropped out psychologically and philosophically, switching my allegiance to the counterculture. The change coincided with my deepening disillusionment with Western civilization and ideas.

In its early days, the counterculture was divided into two fundamental factions: the spiritual hippies and the New Left politicos. The essential difference was that the hippies believed you had to change yourself before you could change the world, while the leftists believed you had to change the world before you could change yourself. I sided with the hippies. By the time I was 20 I completely dismissed mainstream American culture. I saw it as dying. At the same time, the hippie image and philosophy were being diluted and destroyed by the Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll crowd, who were not hippies, but looked like them. I ended up dropping out of the counterculture—dropping out of the drop-outs—and landing on the streets of North Beach, where I continued my search for what is “really real.” It wasn’t exactly a deliberate move, but neither was it an accident. I didn’t find all my answers there, but I did find many. And I came to a solid understanding that America really was in a death spiral, something that’s quite apparent now.

I remained a complete outsider—no home, no job, no ID—until the wild parrots came into my life. By getting involved with two creative projects, the book and the film, and having to present them to the public, I got pulled back into the System. (Both projects happened naturally. They were not calculated.) But I remained essentially a counterculturist disillusioned with the counterculture—not to mention the System. My return coincided with 9/11, so in 2008, I was happy to be seduced by Obama. But he turned out to be more of the same—a so-called centrist Democrat. I vowed then that I would never get fooled again. The only individual I could imagine ever supporting was Bernie Sanders. He was from the edge of the counterculture, its political side, so he felt close enough to where I stood. But I never thought he’d run, and when he announced, I pretty much ignored him. He started saying things that for so long had needed to be said, and I was amazed by how many responded to him. I was riveted throughout his campaign. But the establishment Democrats had no intention of allowing him to succeed.

Since the advent of computers the Empire has become corporate and global in nature. (That’s obvious, yes.) I am adamantly opposed to the Empire, which is indifferent to everything save money and power. Its massiveness has made it the biggest threat to world peace, a healthy environment, and a sane life. Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is a supporter of the Empire. She made it clear that she would use military power to keep the Empire in place and thriving. Trump, who is a genuine sociopath (that needs to be understood), is more like a domestic terrorist. He will fail because of his ego. The Global Empire demands an ability to work with others, something he is incapable of doing because of his “disease.” He’s going to cause a great deal of harm to his fellow Americans, but it’s difficult for me to think of Trump as objectively worse simply because he is more of a threat to me personally. If I did, it would make me indifferent to the suffering of those who Clinton would have squashed in her effort to maintain the Empire, which, like America, is also in its death throes. Both Clinton and Trump are devotees of Mammon. They simply had different constituencies supporting them in their quests for power. Mammon has no principles.

My allegiance remains to the counterculture, which needs to revive itself and develop greater maturity. There is no hope for the established institutions of the modern world, which are completely off-base philosophically. I don’t care about economics, politics, or science, all of which now serve as tools for ambitious egotists. The only thing I’ve ever cared about is love. It’s the only thing that has never fallen away from me.

Lane Tietgen Revisited

July 28, 2016

LaneMy goal as a youth to make it as a singer-songwriter is a major thread in my work-in-progress, Street Song. You can’t really describe music with words, and, as I’ve worked on the book, it has occurred to me that most readers will be curious to know what I sounded like. I haven’t played seriously in over 40 years, but have never stopped entirely. I’ve decided to make a small demo-type recording of six songs which I’ll make available one way or another to readers of the book. All the songs I’m recording are referred to in the text. Three of them are songs that I wrote. One of the most vital songs in Street Song is “Highway,” by the singer-songwriter Lane Tietgen. I first heard “Highway” in 1972 on an album called Crazed Hipsters by Finnigan and Wood. Lane was not a member of that band, but had been in a band called The Serfs with Finnigan and Wood’s lead singer, Mike Finnigan. You can hear the Crazed Hipsters version here.

In the 60s and 70s, songs fulfilled the same function as poetry had in other eras. Religion, too! Certain songs changed the way people looked at the world. “Highway” did that for me. Several years ago, seeking permission to quote the lyrics in my book, I spent some time tracking down Lane Tietgen. I finally found him in nearby Sonoma, and he kindly gave me permission. When I decided to make this recording I knew “Highway” had to be one of the songs I recorded. So I sent him another email asking if it was okay for me to record it. He said I could, but he wanted to know if I was certain that I was playing the correct chords. I’d never learned it back in the days I was performing because it sounded like the type of song you needed a band to play, and I was a solo artist. Although I’d started learning the song, I hadn’t put a great deal of work into it yet, and I was unsure about a few of the chords. So Lane suggested that I come up to his place so he could teach me the correct chords. I was quite taken aback—pleased as could be. Judy and I recently drove up to Eureka in Northern California, and along the way  we stopped for my “Highway” lesson. Thank you, Lane.

Not many people know his work, which is a pity. I have a two-part piece here on my blog called “The Magnificent Return of Lane Tietgen” which I suggest you all read. He continues to be one of the few practitioners of the singer-songwriter genre who, in my opinion, is still really doing it. The best of that genre was about the exploration of the human heart, not neurotic complaints or political posturing. Lane has stayed with his heart.

 

Back from Facebook

July 17, 2015

I’ve been doing the Facebook thing for awhile, becoming familiar with its workings. I’d been told many times that I will need a Facebook presence to publicize my new book when it comes out. But since I started posting over there I haven’t paid any attention to this blog. I don’t really like Facebook. (I didn’t think I would.) The temptation is to be quick and superficial and a smart ass. I expect to start posting here again soon. Until then…

The Greek Debt

June 17, 2015
In Hydra 1969

In Hydra in 1969 with Dougal, Janice, Nikos, and unknown.

In 1969, a few months after graduating from high school, I flew to Europe, where I spent several months exploring by thumb and by train. Of all the countries I traveled through, my favorite by far was Greece. It was a beautiful land with its own distinct culture. The old Mediterranean peasant world still had a strong presence, which made a big impression on me. The Greeks in general were extraordinarily friendly, openly curious about people from other countries, and generous. One day, at an outdoor market I asked a farmer if I could buy an orange. He seemed puzzled and asked, “One kilo?” “No, one orange,” I said. He frowned and shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to sell me just one orange. He gave it to me. One of the special aspects of Greece, especially Crete, was the sense of timelessness—by which I mean I had little awareness of being in a particular historical era. Visually, everything was distinct. As Henry Miller said of Crete in The Colossus of Maroussi, “You see everything in its uniqueness—a man sitting under a tree: a donkey climbing a path near a mountain: a ship in a harbor in a sea of turquoise: a table on a terrace beneath a cloud.” I’d already begun my lifelong loathing of modernity—the tawdry commercialism, superficial relationships, the hustle—and I loved Greece for the slow pace of life and its beauty. Living life was more important than business. (It’s pitiful that people who believe life should be beautiful are regarded now as romantics. It’s a symptom of how lost we’ve become.)

In 2007 I returned to Greece to do research for my book Street Song. I wasn’t expecting it to be the same, but the degree of change was startling. Everything that I loved about Greece was gone. It had lost that special sense of timelessness. Greece had become a resort for wealthy northern Europeans and Americans. And the Greeks themselves had become sullen. All they wanted was your money. It took me a few days to figure out exactly what had happened: globalization. Greece was now just an outpost on the international corporate circuit. One day I tried to talk to a Greek about it, and he blew me off. He was gruff and uncommunicative. I finally did talk to a Greek about it,  a man who owned a laundromat and spoke English. He agreed with me—very passionately—that something had gone very wrong in Greece. All anybody did was work and work, and they were all unhappy about it. They all believed that they had no choice. Much of their work consisted in serving the fat Germans who lounged about on the beaches and treated them like serfs.

There is a lot of anger directed at Greece in the Western World because of the new government’s threat to default on its debt. A tremendous amount of pressure is being put on them to stay the course of austerity and to open the doors wider to those who have no interest in Greece other than to rape and pillage. I, for one, hope they can resist. If it means default, then bless them. The insane, pointless workaholism of the Germans and Americans goes against the character of the Greeks—against the character of human beings, really. We are not designed to live this way and we’re heading for a nervous breakdown.

America, Germany, and England as well as some other countries have declared to the rest of the world that globalization is the only way to go, that every country must be part of it or it won’t survive. No one is given a choice. The global economy is very clearly a great evil to me. It’s tawdry and shallow. We’ve gone far beyond any level of comfort that we actually need, and yet we’re still not satisfied. Our levels of anger and frustration grow continually because materialism can never satisfy. Something is going to bring the whole thing down one day. I think of the bankers as drug dealers. They try to get you hooked and then send in their enforcers if you don’t pay up. It’s probably too much to hope that a default by Greece would begin the unraveling, but it would be most appropriate if it did. The Western World’s enshrinement of rationality and logic began in Greece, and it is rationality and logic that have led us to the horrific level of materialism that we live by today. If Greece can begin the process of the collapse of that system—which must collapse for the world to survive—it will be one of those beautifully ironic moments that history sometimes serves up.

Look Out!

May 10, 2015

Around 1978 I heard about a book that had just come out called Looking Out for Number One. I was appalled. The title was completely at odds with what had been going on throughout the 60s and early 70s, and it sounded evil to my ears. I still think of that book as the beginning of the change in this culture’s psychology, one we’re still living out. Reagan became president a couple of years later, and he advanced this idea of looking out for number one, and it has been growing as a national belief ever since. The author of the book was a libertarian, and we see libertarianism gaining more and more traction.

I think that “selfish” is what is really meant nowadays when we say “conservative.” So-called conservatives insist that it’s a virtue, that you’re supposed to look out for your country, your family, and yourself before anything else. People who don’t share this idea are viewed with suspicion. But looking out for number one is not a virtue. It’s a biological view of morality—instinctive, unthinking. And people who follow it are quite capable of turning against their country, their mate, or their children whenever it serves their self-interest. Selfish people don’t care about anybody else, by definition. Selfishness gradually undermines any system that embraces it. We’re seeing that happen in this country now. The general atmosphere is becoming increasingly hostile and argumentative, less neighborly. There are movements in certain states to secede from the union. People live in isolation from one another in general. Here in San Francisco, for example, people seldom see the inside of other people’s homes. Some people point to social media as an example of the continuance of community, but I don’t think so. It’s superficial community, if it’s community at all. The culture has lost its memory of what real community feels like. I’ve lived in a few and I’ve always liked them. The only one I’m in right now is the South End Rowing Club, my swim club. It’s the one place I actually enjoying being. It’s not a fancy fitness club. It’s all volunteer, and you can feel it. There’s something greater than the sum of the parts.

So if looking out for number one is wrong, what’s right? I read once that we should look out for the well-being of everything that lives, not excluding ourselves. I think that makes good sense.

Pelican Dreams and the Importance of Nature

April 15, 2015

Judy Irving’s new film, Pelican Dreams, is available now as a DVD, a streaming video, and a download. It’s in all the usual places—Amazon, iTunes, and, as far as we know, Netflix, although I think only as a DVD. (Other people are in charge of distribution and neither one of us has enough business sense to remember all the details.) Judy’s nonprofit company, Pelican Media, has an online store that sells the DVD, and this is, of course, how she would prefer that people view it. The store is at pelicanmedia.org. To go to the store, you can click here. I can’t pretend to be an unbiased observer, but it is a very good film. Surprisingly good. Moving, humorous, intelligent. There is one moment that never fails to choke me up. I’ve seen it 30 times or so, and it gets me every time.

DVD cover for Pelican Dreams

DVD cover for Pelican Dreams

Circumstances have made me less of a hermit lately (you have to be a hermit to write a book) and I’ve been having more frequent encounters with strangers than I usually do. The usual questions come up—where do you live? what do you do? have any kids? what does your wife do? and so on. When I tell people my wife is a filmmaker they usually perk up. “Oh, yeah? What kind of films?” “Documentaries.” “What about?” “Nature mostly.” And then I often see the interest fade. A lot of people see nature as an inferior subject, not worthy of the attention of a serious artist. Nature is nice and all, but all critters do is eat, sleep, and breed. They’re not as fascinating as we human beings. This is the ignorance of an almost entirely urbanized population that is obsessed with money, technology, and celebrity, and fascinated by its own neuroses and addictions. But all life, all the plants and the animals, have a deeper reality than the one we habitually see. There is a poetry to everything that lives, and just as love is not nonsense simply because some people make bad movies or write bad songs about it, neither is nature shallow and boring just because people make shallow and boring films about it. (It’s so pitiful to feel any need to say this!) The beautiful thing about Pelican Dreams is that it captures some of the poetry of the pelican’s existence. And that existence is absorbing in a way that the neuroses of human beings are not.

Cannery Row

April 5, 2015

I’m currently reading an Italian translation of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (Vicolo Cannery). For anybody who hasn’t read it, it’s a romantic, sentimental depiction of a real place and based on real people, a community of outsiders in old town Monterey, California during the depression. Cannery Row was the popular name for Ocean View Avenue. It’s in an industrial part of town at the waterfront and was home to the old sardine fleet. The fish were abundant then, and Ocean View Avenue was lined with canneries. The main characters in the story are a man who owns a biology laboratory and warehouse, a bunch of bums and winos who spend their days in a vacant lot drinking, a Chinese grocer, and a madam with a heart of gold. The book sympathizes with these outsiders. In the mid-1940s, the sardine population began to crash, eventually putting the canneries completely out of business. The book Cannery Row was so popular that the town renamed Ocean View Avenue after it and turned it into a tourist destination.

Last week, Judy did a special screening of Pelican Dreams at the aquarium in Monterey, and they put us up in one of the Cannery Row hotels. Because I’m reading the book, I was interested in checking out the locations. Today the old canneries have been turned into restaurants, hotels, and upscale boutiques. It’s extraordinarily expensive and quite tacky, like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The morning we left I was walking along a bike path/pedestrian thoroughfare that used to be train tracks when I happened upon two homeless people guzzling a bottle of beer. It amused me highly because I was certain that if they’d been noticed by the police, they would have been run out of the neighborhood. Yet they were the only true part of the book that was left.

Plum Blossoms Again

March 3, 2015

Outside the dining room window
I see plum blossoms again.
The tree is misshapen
from ancient bad prunings.
Because it no longer puts out fruit
I keep suggesting that we cut it down,
replace it with an apple tree.
But my wife says no.
The birds like it, she says.

Different, I guess

March 1, 2015

Taking a break on a long road trip,
sitting in the sun
in an outlet mall parking lot
in Gilroy, California
comparing two Italian translations of
The Catcher in the Rye