Music Notes November 2016

November 30, 2016 at 11:43 pm (Uncategorized)

I’m a bit pressed for time this month, so I’ll say, if you’re doing your holiday shopping early, you could do a lot worse than these folks.

  1. Norton Records – kicks just keep getting harder to find
  2. Ace Records – Reissues you never knew you needed.
  3. Third Man Records -Hello Jack White
  4. Merge Records – Superchunk, superchunk, superchunk
  5. Captain oi – For all your punk rock needs

Get shopping!

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Internationalist Perspective on the US Elections: This is What Democracy Looks Like

November 27, 2016 at 11:18 pm (Uncategorized)

Hey, I just read how Trump is claiming he won the popular vote too. If you subtract the “illegal” votes that is.🙂

Now read this…

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THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE

A few questions linger after these elections. Such as: is the new US president a psychopath or is he a sociopath?

Whatever the correct diagnosis may be, it can’t be denied that his election testifies to a considerable increase of discontent, disaffection and anxiety in a broad swath of the American population. Trump won, by adding to the traditional Republican votes, those of many in the white working class, who in previous elections voted for Obama or not at all. Let’s not exaggerate his appeal: only a quarter of the eligible voters voted for him; his opponent in fact got at least a million votes more than him but, as you know, he won in the Electoral College. ‘That’s what democracy looks like’, as protesters (unintentionally ironically) shout in American streets, while they’re being chased by the armed protectors of the democratic state.

There are good reasons for discontent, disaffection and anxiety in the American working class. Because of the sharp competition on the global labor market and the unstoppable march of automation, more and more people are unsure whether they will have a job tomorrow, and in what conditions. Hidden unemployment is rampant. The gap between rich and poor grows. Around the world, wars and poverty create an endless stream of refugees. Climate disasters become worse and more frequent. And it won’t get better any time soon. According to a recent study, poverty and insecurity will increase sharply in the US in the coming years. [1]

One would think that this would make fertile ground for the left. But it is the right that conquers the imagination of the masses. The right, in an anti-elitist disguise. Of course, Trump did not appeal to the working class alone. He made sure to make enough reactionary promises to satisfy the core voting blocs of the Republican party, and enough assurances to the owners of capital (the stock market went up after his election). His authoritarian appeal cut across class divisions. Rampant anxiety and worries about globalization are not limited to the working class. The influx of migrants (which is the result of the poverty and disintegration that capitalism creates), terrorism (which is part of the wars capitalism generates), the rise of chaos and despair generated by this system in crisis, create fears that are fanned and exploited by politicians like Trump. In times of great confusion, decisiveness becomes very appealing to many. Decisive leaders rise to the top, because their belief is so strong that it inspires trust. But as the writer Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, these decisive leaders, “unlike normal people, are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they don’t care what happens next.” That explains the success of madmen like Trump, Erdogan, Duterte, Orban and so on. Of course, Trump cares what happens next. He cares what happens next to Trump, but not what happens to you and me.

But to extend his appeal to the working class, his anti-elitist stance was essential. “This is not just a campaign”, Trump repeated over and over, “it is a movement. It is a revolt against the elite. We’ll drain the swamp in Washington”. Never mind that he himself is a proud member of the 1%, even of the 0,001%. So much the better, because it means “I know the system better than anyone;” as he often proclaimed, “that makes me into the only one who can fix it”. But he stood outside of it, so he proved with his language and attitude. He insulted the party bosses, he was rude, unpolished in a calculated way. Trump successfully framed the elections as a choice between an anti-politician and a paragon of the power-structure, between a real person and a professional liar, between change and continuity. In this election, almost all the flaws of the winner worked to his advantage. His lack of political experience, his limited knowledge, his crudeness, his prejudices, his boasting, his aggressiveness, his sexism and racism, his unfiltered emotional outbursts, his chilly relation with his party-leaders, his political uncorrectness, it all heightened the contrast with Clinton, that polished product of the Washington establishment, supported by Wall Street, by most of the media, by the movie and music stars, by the experts and most generals, by the trade unions and scores of other institutions.

The bulk of the American left supported Clinton as well, led by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Moore. Many were motivated by their revulsion of Trump’s sexism and racism. Still, it was remarkable how arduously the left campaigned for the candidate of Wall Street. Some on the left even uncritically circulated Democratic propaganda “proving” that, contrary to Trump’s claims, Americans never had it so good. Which alienated them even more from those who, in their own life, experienced something else.

Yet the same left helped to prepare the way for Trump. For many years, the unions have been saying that the root of all problems is not capitalism but unfair foreign competition. Opposition to trade-agreements was the main theme of Sanders, as it was for Trump. No wonder almost a fifth of those who voted for Sanders in the primaries later chose Trump. Sanders’ message, just as much as Trump’s, was “America First”. Let’s keep our factories to ourselves. Despite all their differences, Trump and Sanders share an essentially capitalist, nationalist vision, based on the conflict of interest between “our” capital and theirs. [2]

It may have been that Sanders would have won if he would have been Trump’s opponent. His angry tone, his unpolished demeanor, his message of “change” might have fared better than Clinton’s promise to keep up the good work. But, despite the fact that Sanders would have been as little a threat to capital as Tsipras in Greece, the time for a left wing president in the US had not yet arrived. There were no mass movements to contain, no mood of class revolt to be calmed. The Democratic machine felt sure that the center would hold.

Trump’s triumph sowed panic in the left. “It’s the end of an era!” “Within a year, America will be a smoldering ruin!” “It won’t take six months before he starts a war!” and other dire warnings circulated wildly on ‘social media’. Even a pro-revolutionary group like the Marxist Humanist Initiative was caught up in the anti-Trump hysteria. “The whole world has been turned upside down”, it proclaimed on its website, exhorting its readers to fight, not against capitalism but against “Trumpism”.

Let’s take a deep breath.

Trump made a lot of promises. To the working class, he promised to bring back “the good jobs”; stable, well paid employment “like it used to be”. He promised good times, not just in the metropoles of the East and West coasts, where economic conditions have somewhat improved, but in the rust belt, in the vast areas of the country were the prospects of working people are somber. How is he going to do that? By scrapping trade-agreements, raising tariffs, deporting undocumented immigrants and launching infrastructural projects such as his famous wall on the border with Mexico. Indeed, a distasteful recipe. But will the soup be as hot when it’s eaten as when it was served during the campaign?

The president of the US is a powerful person and yet also nothing more than a cog in a machine. He can’t change the inherent dynamic of the machine. That’s why globalization and automation will continue under president Trump as well. Capital seeks profit. That is the ground principle that every manager of capital must heed. Globalization and automation are the means to increase profits in our times. But they also bring capitalism’s crisis to the fore: its productive capacity outruns its capacity to consume productively, its drive to lower labor costs tendentially reduces the source of its profit: the exploitation of labor power. Crisis is the result, as well in the form of sudden collapses with paralyzing effects as through a slowly creeping erosion of value, including the value of workers. With devastating effects. No wonder there is nostalgia, and not just in the working class, for a time when globalization and automation were not yet buzz words, for those prosperous post- world war decades, which Trump so skillfully exploited.

This also means that it will become quickly clear that Trump’s promises are nothing more than cynical lies. The “good jobs” he promised to coal miners, auto workers and steel workers, are not coming back. There is more steel being produced in the US than ever, but with only a small fraction of the work force than before. There’s no turning back. Neither will the undocumented immigrants disappear. They are too valuable as a cheap labor source. Who else will wash the windows of Trump tower or mow the grass of his golf courses or make the beds in his hotels for a measly wage? Even his great wall will probably never be built.

What promises will he keep? Even under the unlikely assumption that he meant everything he said during the campaign, his dependence on the Republican establishment, dominant in Congress, would prevent him from major deviations from the bipartisan common course, such as pulling out of NATO, scrapping NAFTA, or becoming too cozy with Russia.

Some lesser changes are possible of course. He may resist new free trade-agreements. He may cut a deal with Russia on Syria and may become more confrontational with China. He may weaken the already very weak measures taken on climate change. When he scraps TPP and takes measures to boost domestic manufacturing, the left will be in the embarrassing position of having to applaud him.

Trump, Sanders and Clinton all promised a major increase of spending on infrastructure. Trump also promised tax cuts, especially to the rich. This means a continuation, even an increase, of budget deficits. It shows capitalism has nothing new to offer to address its crisis. More debt will be piled on the existing ones, the can will be kicked down the road. A new “great recession” is probably not far away.

It seems likely that there will be a lot of turmoil in both major American parties. To the degree Trump would stray from the Republican mainstream, conflicts within the party would multiply. The Democrats will be divided as well, like the Labour Party in the UK: its left wing, unrestrained by governmental responsibility, will feel free to “radicalize” in an attempt to shore up its image. Others, the more “moderates”, will see an opportunity in the rightward swing of the Republicans to occupy the center and reconquer power.

Demonizing Trump will be one of the ways in which the left will put on a radical face. Some of them are comparing Trump to Hitler, warning that this could be the last election in the US, like Hitler’s was the last one in Germany. But Trump is no Hitler. Not even a Mussolini, although his facial expressions sometimes bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Il Duce. There will be more elections. Trump is a democrat, and we don’t mean that as a compliment. Democracy is the most fitting form of government for a developed capitalist society.

A better comparison would be Andrew Jackson, the US president from 1829 to 1837, which also was a time of great turmoil. Jackson, aka “Old Hickory,” campaigned as the embodiment of the backwoodsman “cracker” spirit, as his critics put it, even though by the time he was elected he had become a slave-owning planter just like the wealthy elites who had bamboozled or bullied so many freeholders out of their small plots. He lacked “statesmanlike qualities” but the fact that “Jackson did not look or act like a conventional politician was a fundamental part of his appeal”, the historian Nancy Isenberg writes [3]. “He was boastful and overbearing, not “a government minion or a pampered courtier,” an outsider who promised to clean up Washington corruption by the bluntest methods available. As one of his enemies wrote, “boisterous in ordinary conversation, he makes up in oaths what he lacks in arguments.” He was “quick to resent any who disagreed with him,” and “eschewed reasoned debate in favor of challenging his opponents to duels”.

Sounds familiar?

Just like Trump he was anti-political correct, a megalomaniac, crude and aggressive. Like Trump, he won thanks to the support of white working class voters. Like Trump, he was generous with populist promises which he neither could nor wanted to fulfill.

To keep the support of his working class voters when it became clear that he had sold them out, Jackson needed an enemy, an “other” to scapegoat, to unite the country against. The victims at hand were the native Americans, those “barbarians”. His brutal Native American removal policy, in which thousands died, made him popular again.

It is not too far-fetched to expect Trump to choose the same tactic when the emptiness of his promises becomes clear. There are plenty of potential targets to canalize the frustrations to, as Trump already demonstrated during the election campaign. It remains to be seen which one becomes Trump’s favorite enemy. And it remains to be seen whether the Jackson tactic will work today.

Trump’s success is not a uniquely American phenomenon. But his victory encourages brutal leaders around the world and gives wind in the sails to right wing populists in Europe and elsewhere, who ride the same wave of anxiety and discontent. Meanwhile, the left in power, ranging from the “socialist” Hollande in France to Tsipras in Greece and Maduro in Venezuela, amply prove that they have no solutions either for the cataclysms generated by capitalism’s crisis.

How worrisome is this rightward swing?

It is not the lack of success of the left that is worrisome, but the lack of real resistance where it counts: in the work places, the schools, the streets.

The capitalist class keeps us mesmerized by its awesome battles between left and right and center, by the spectacle of democracy. This year: more gripping than ever! You can’t look away! Every vote counts! Regardless of the outcome, the elections were “a great teaching moment”, as Obama said. A great propaganda campaign for democracy, which reduces the possibility of real change to the ballot box, which can only produce different managers of capitalism, but never end capitalism, while capitalism is the root of the problems which those managers pretend they will resolve.

Real change can only come from resistance to capitalism, from refusing its logic. This decade started hopefully, with the Arab Spring, the strike waves in Asia, in Greece and in France, the movements of the indignados and Occupy…. Despite their weaknesses, they testified to a growing belief in the possibility of an alternative to the horrible, insane world we live in. The tide was turned through outright repression, and the whole toolbox of capitalist propaganda: nationalism, ethnic pride, religion, racism, democracy and fear. The very effects of capitalism (war, poverty and the resulting rising stream of refugees) proved helpful in making people accept the strengthening of the capitalist state.

Poverty, wars, dislocation, massive migration will continue, since they are the logical outcome of the inherent dynamic of capitalism. But that they would continue to be as useful to divide the exploited and the oppressed, is not a given. History does not follow a straight course. We may be “in the calm before the storm”, in which the will to survive will overcome the divisions created among us. It’s not a certainty. But it’s a possibility.

INTERNATIONALIST PERSPECTIVE

Notes

[1] See: . http://www.cbsnews.com/news/80-percent-of-us-adults-face-near-poverty-unemployment-survey-finds/2/

[2] Similarly, “Occupy Wall Street”, that is the leftists who still use the name of the movement, even though it is a mantle on a corpse, devoted at least 95% of its mailings in the past years to opposition to the TPP free trade-agreement.

[3] Nancy Isenberg: WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Viking 2016

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Notes on Trump : Insurgent Notes

November 20, 2016 at 8:18 pm (Uncategorized)

There’s a lot more that could be written about the US election and “Trumpism.” Internationalist Perspective will have something out shortly, and instead of adding more of my own comments,  I thought I would post links to some of the other things being said. There will be much I don’t agree with, but they are worth a look.

This piece was published by the online review Insurgent Notes in October: President Trump?  

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Leonard Cohen and Me

November 20, 2016 at 8:05 pm (Uncategorized)

A week has passed, and I’m still sad.

I first heard of Leonard Cohen in an English class in Grade 13. For some or other reason, I wasn’t able to make the regular English class fit into my schedule, but my guidance counselor suggested a class called Canadian English. OK, I’m game. We read Mordecai Richler, Gabrielle Roy, David French and more, and in the poetry section Irving Layton (we went to see him read) and Leonard Cohen.  Our teacher, Mrs. Hayes I think, showed us a grainy black and white film about Cohen from the CBC, and we read a few of his poems in the class. Maybe it was being a moody teenager just getting into folk music, but something about Cohen’s work struck a note.

A few days later, I was in a used bookstore in St. Catharines and found a copy of Let Us Compare Mythologies , which is still a favourite. After hearing “Susanne” in the classroom, I bought Songs of Leonard Cohen and listened to it over and over again.  I read his first novel The Favourite Game, and loved it. I found Beautiful Losers difficult. A few years later, for our first Christmas together, I gave my wife Cohen’s new work,  The Book of Mercy.

I saw Cohen perform live only once; at the O’Keefe Centre around 1993. I was a great show although in all honesty, I prefer the stripped down Cohen accompanied only by an acoustic guitar rather than the later period full arrangements.  The first Leonard Cohen tribute has a great selection of songs, but who can deny that Nick Cave’s version of “Tower of Song” and John Cale’s “Hallelujah” are better than Cohen’s? (OK, some will)

For me, Cohen was always about words. It’s where his “true”voice was. And now that voice is quiet, it’s likely we’ll only come to appreciate it more.

I haven’t listened to his new record, but the reviews suggested it’s one of his best. I’ll get around to it. For now, I think I’ll have another crack at Beautiful Losers.

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Apocalypse Pretty soon, Blah Blah Blah, but Seriously America? Seriously?

November 9, 2016 at 1:29 pm (Uncategorized)

WTF?

I’m firmly of the opinion that on the real substantive issues that affect capital, there is little difference between the the Republicans and the Democrats. Capital will continue. class struggle will also continue. People do resist according to the logic of their existence.

But, at the risk of being accused of sliding into leftism, I’m saddened that a campaign could be run on such an openly racist, homophobic, misogynistic, borderline (or maybe not) anti-Semitic, lying from one-moment-to-the-next basis by a thin-skinned narcissistic, possibly illiterate, billionaire sociopath  with the temperament of a toddler, and still end up winning by a not-insignificant margin.

And so it goes.

 

 

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“Screw you Taxpayer”: C’mon folks, Lighten Up

November 8, 2016 at 1:01 pm (Uncategorized)

Ah, I was going to write something about the election (Obsessed,  remember?), but even I have my limits. So, here’s this. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), alternately the Communist Broadcasting Corporation or simply the Corpse as its known here in Canada, has produced a few comic gems over the years. The Newsroom, Twitch City, and even Little Mosque on the Prairie had its moments. for many, including me, The Kids in the Hall is probably the peak. Forget the disappointing movie and the frankly awful come-back show a while back, the original series which ran from 1989 to 1995 was genius. Like all sketch comedies, not everything was a hit, but when it did…

Here’s an excerpt from “This Is a Book About the Kids in the Hall” by John Semley which appeared on Salon, so that probably means I’m breaking copyright posting it here. But John, I want people to buy your book.

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 Here is how you play “The Kids in the Hall” drinking game:
  1. Get some drinks and put on “The Kids in the Hall”: Sort of goes without saying. It is, after all, a drinking game. You wouldn’t play baseball without a mitt or go diving for pucks without, well, a bunch of pucks. Would you?
  2. Take a drink every time you see a businessman: A man in a suit, a corporate drone, a big-time business boy. When you see one, drink. But before you do, you have to shout, “A businessman! A businessman!” like a precocious kid.1
  3. Take a drink every time all five members of the troupe are on-screen at the same time: that’s Dave, Kevin, Mark, Scott, and Bruce. When they’re all in a scene together—or, some purists argue, in the frame at the same time—take a drink.
  4. Take a drink every time someone swears: The Kids in the Hall’s U.S. broadcast allowed them to use big-time curse words. So drink every time you hear a big swear: the “F-word,”2 the “S-word,”3 Not, like, hell or damn or butt.
  5. Take a drink every time you see something “conspicuously Canadian”: I’ll get into this in a bit.
  6. Take a drink every time you see a man in a dress: hope you like drinks!4

This drinking game was first introduced to me by my friend Phil. Phil is an American by birth, though his die hard appreciation for the Kids in the Hall makes him, to my mind, something of an honorary Canadian.

When Phil and I would sit around drinking, watching “The Kids in the Hall,” and playing this game, the rule we’d most quibble over was number five, the “conspicuously Canadian” one. As it turns out, what constitutes “Canadian,” let alone “conspicuously Canadian,” is wide open to interpretation. These are the sorts of lively debates that are encouraged while watching an old sketch comedy program and crushing beers in a friend’s apartment.

See, for Phil, “conspicuously Canadian” meant, like, someone wearing a Toronto Blue Jays sweatshirt or a mention of Winnipeg or a stubby bottle of Molson Canadian. For me, it also trickled into the jokes of the show itself. I always thought the first-season sketch about construction workers scamming the welfare system, “daydreaming about a disabling but non-crippling injury,” worked as “conspicuously Canadian” in its function as a cynical send-up of the social welfare state. Likewise, something like the late-second season sketch “Screw You, Taxpayer!” which assaults the public funding structure of the CBC, is totally Canadian, albeit in a way that may not make much sense to an American.

If there’s one sketch I’d point to and say, “This is the definitive ‘Kids in the Hall’ sketch,” it’d probably be “Screw You, Taxpayer!” It starts like any other comedy sketch, to the point that it immediately seems like a dopey send-up of the Idea of a Comedy Sketch. A buttoned-down couple (Thompson and Foley) are sitting at a supper table, drinking coffee. The doorbell rings. It’s a well-dressed suitor (McKinney) arriving to take the couple’s daughter, Karen, on a date. The problem? He’s late. Very late. Karen has been dead for two years.

McKinney begins making apologies for his tardiness, blaming “rickshaw trouble,” at which point the camera cuts to McCulloch, dressed as a crass embodiment of East Asian stereotypes, right down to the Fu Manchu moustache. “Don’t blame me,” McCulloch pleads, in a mawkish, racist “Engrish” accent. “I stubbed my toooooooooe!” Undaunted, McKinney takes the girl out on a date anyway, cheerily carrying her urn out of the house. “Karen!” he exclaims, eyeing the jar. “Hubba hubba!” Then, for no real discernible reason, the camera cuts again to Kevin McDonald, sitting in a high chair, wearing a diaper, making baby noises while smashing a spoon into a bowl of cereal.

Then things change. McKinney steps out of the sketch, dropping his character and assuming the role of himself—or a version of himself; you know the deal. “Wow,” he says. “What a bad sketch. And in such poor taste, too. You know, we’re gonna get a lot of telephone calls and letters about this one. And why not? Every Canadian has a right to complain about that sketch because every Canadian owns a piece of that sketch!”

McKinney then proceeds to show a flow chart explaining how the CBC’s government subsidy works and how Canadians pay into the public broadcaster responsible for showing such a bad, tasteless, racist — but most of all stupid — piece of sketch comedy. “You see,” he continues, “your tax dollars feed into the government, which in turn mandates the CBC, which in turn provides funding both whole or in part to shows such as ours. So like a cup full of water poured into the ocean, the atomic parts of your tax dollars mix with the whole and wind up providing for the budget of this show, for the budget of that sketch, and for this piece I’m doing now, which we like to call—”

And then the studio audience joins him in an enthusiastic cry of: “SCREW YOU, TAXPAYER!”

The piece goes on to index expensive props used for the show, which are then destroyed, while also offering Thompson a chance to express his belief that he should personally be allowed to masturbate in public buildings. “Whoa!” McKinney responds, in mock-surprise. “Interesting viewpoint! Bet it’s not yours, but you just paid to hear it!” Throughout, the audience chants, “SCREW YOU, TAXPAYER!” It’s almost as if they’re pitching the phrase as an alternate title for the show itself. You can almost imagine the TV spot: “Tune in to Screw You, Taxpayer! Thursday nights at 9 p.m., on the CBC.”

“That was controversial on both sides of the border,” McKinney tells me. “One: at the CBC, I think it made them nervous. And we had to fight with HBO to get them to show it. They thought people wouldn’t understand that in America.”

The sketch’s inimitability, the way it knowingly plays to a given audience segment (i.e., Canadian viewers watching “The Kids in the Hall” on CBC) while so uncaringly excluding another (i.e., American audiences watching the show on HBO or, later, on CBS) sort of sums up the Kids’ whole approach to comedy. They play to the people who get it, and to hell with the rest. They’re undeniably, unabashedly cult. McCulloch likes to say of the troupe, “Everything we touched turned to cult.” It may be true. But it seems just as true that pretty much everything the “Kids in the Hall” did was cult by design — built to appeal to a core base while willingly alienating anyone else. But most of all, it always seemed like the Kids were willing (maybe too willing) to alienate, annoy, or straight-up piss off the people holding the purse strings: the dopey suits at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who dared to meddle with their refined idea of comedy.

Thompson says that the troupe was constantly getting anxious notes from the CBC, fretful about one or another sketch or character or idea. But with the veteran Lorne Michaels in their corner, the Kids were able to push a lot of their ideas — including ideas like “Screw You, Taxpayer!” which undermined the legitimacy of both the network itself and (in a way) the entire nation of Canada — onto the air.

“We had an American hammer to smash them with,” he remembers. “You needed an American hammer. It’s such a sad statement about Canada. It’s such a colonial way to behave. We were formidable when we were together . . . We were constantly being monitored. Constantly being censored. Constantly being advised not to do things. But a lot of the time, we’d just pretend [to agree], and we’d just do it [anyway]. The truth is, a lot of those fights were fun. I like a fight. We knew we were doing something different. We had a real punk sensibility.”

That sensibility infected everyone working on the show. Kelly Makin,5 who was brought in to direct the show’s short film segments for the third season of “The Kids in the Hall” (and who later directed the Kids’ feature film), remembers the period fondly. “It was an amazing production to work on,” he says. “Being under the umbrella of Broadway Video, and [with] Lorne Michaels involved, CBC was always supportive. They wanted to do something different. We weren’t necessarily protected. We certainly had to fight to get stuff on that they thought was too far. But they were excited and supportive of the show. And the Kids themselves were a pretty powerful, strong-willed unit together. I wouldn’t say we had carte blanche, but it was a very exciting playground for comedy. We were doing so much stuff at that time.”

***

  1. This, canny “Kids in the Hall” fans will know, is a reference to the season one “Headcrusher” sketch in which the Headcrusher (Mark McKinney) debates whether to crush the head of a young kid wearing a suit. Giving the boy a chance to save himself from the fate of a smoothed skull, Headcrusher asks the boy what he wants to be when he grows up, to which the child excitedly responds, “A businessman! A businessman!”
  2. “Fuck.”
  3. “Shit.”
  4. I once explained this drinking game to Dave Foley during an interview. His response? “The dress thing alone must get you pretty loaded.”
  5. Makin seemed like a perfect fit for “The Kids in the Hall.” He’d grown up in the suburbs around Toronto and used to frequent the movie theatre where McDonald and Foley worked as ushers.

 

John Semley is a writer, critic, and editor living in Toronto. His work as appeared in The A.V. Club, Slant Magazine, The National Post, Cinema Scope, Maisonneuve Magazine and several other print and online outlets.

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Yet another piece on the US Election

November 7, 2016 at 3:05 am (Uncategorized)

I’ll admit it, this election has hooked me in a way that no other has in a long time. I’m obsessed. In a completely unhealthy way. Scandal after scandal for two of the most unlikely and unlikable candidates ever. And for those who worry about life after the Donald and Hillary Show has been cancelled on Tuesday, don’t worry: There’s going to be a spinoff.

A friend forwarded this to me, and while I don’t agree with Hedges’ political perspective or his conclusions about America and “us,” he makes a good case for how fucked things are, and how it can pretty much only get worse.

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TuthDig

Posted on Oct 30, 2016

By Chris Hedges

There is no shortage of signs of impending environmental catastrophe, including the melting of the polar ice caps and the rise of atmospheric carbon to above 400 parts per million. The earth’s sixth mass extinction is underway. It is not taking place because of planetary forces. Homo sapiens is orchestrating it. Americans are at the same time bankrupting themselves by waging endless and unwinnable wars. We have allowed our elites to push more than half the U.S. population into poverty through deindustrialization. We do nothing to halt the waves of nihilistic violence by enraged citizens who carry out periodic mass shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters and other public places. The political and financial elites flaunt their greed and corruption. Donald Trump appears to pay no federal income taxes. Hillary and Bill Clinton use their foundation as a tool for legalized bribery. Our largest corporations have orchestrated a legal tax boycott. The judicial system is a subsidiary of the corporate state. Militarized police conduct public executions of unarmed people of color. Our infrastructure, including our schools, roads and bridges, along with our deindustrialized cities, are in ruins. Decay and rot—physical and moral—are pervasive. 

We are blinded to our depressing reality by the avalanche of images disseminated by mass media. Political, intellectual and cultural discourse has been replaced with spectacle. Emotionalism and sensationalism are prized over truth. Highly paid pundits who parrot back the official narrative, corporate advertisers, inane talk shows, violent or sexually explicit entertainment and gossip-fueled news have contaminated cultural life. “Reality” television, as contrived as every other form of mass entertainment, has produced a “reality” presidential candidate.

Mass culture, because it speaks to us in easily digestible clichés and stereotypes, reinforces ignorance, bigotry and racism. It promotes our individual and collective self-glorification. It sanctifies nonexistent national virtues. It takes from us the intellectual and linguistic tools needed to separate illusion from truth. It is all show business all the time.

There are millions of Americans who know that something is terribly wrong. A light has gone out. They see this in their own suffering and hopelessness and the suffering and hopelessness of their neighbors. But they lack, because of the contamination of our political, cultural and intellectual discourse, the words and ideas to make sense of what is happening around them. They are bereft of a vision. Austerity, globalization, unfettered capitalism, an expansion of the extraction of fossil fuels, and war are not the prices to be paid for progress and the advance of civilization. They are part of the savage and deadly exploitation by corporate capitalism and imperialism. They serve a neoliberal ideology. The elites dare not speak this truth. It is toxic. They peddle the seductive illusions that saturate the airwaves. We are left to strike out at shadows. We are led to succumb to the racism, allure of white supremacy and bigotry that always accompany a culture in dissolution. 

We cannot, for this reason, discount the possibility that Trump will be elected president. The election outcome will be decided by whatever emotion Americans feel when they cast their ballots. 

Celebrity narratives, manufactured pseudo-drama, sex scandals, natural disasters, insults and invective, mass shootings and war flash before us in a constant jumble of images on ubiquitous screens. The sensory assault obliterates reality. A former congressman who sends a picture of himself in underwear to a woman is a national news story. Sober examinations of our economic, foreign, judicial and environmental policies are dismissed as too complicated and boring. They do not produce engaging images. The electronic media’s sole goal is to attract viewers and advertising dollars. It has conditioned us to demand a nonstop vaudeville act.

Because of this mass indoctrination, we have become infected by what Daniel Boorstin in “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” calls “social narcissism.” The bottomless narcissism of Trump and the Clintons caters to this social narcissism. They reflect back to us our desperate longing for, as well as celebration of, entertainment, celebrity, wealth, power and self-aggrandizement. It is not only advertising and public relations, as Boorstin pointed out, that carry out the incessant manufacturing of illusions that feed social narcissism. Journalists, book publishers, politicians, athletes, entertainers, positive psychologists, self-help gurus, the Christian right and talk show hosts all feed the mania for illusion. They all chant the insane mantra that reality is never an impediment to what we desire. We can have anything we want if we work hard, get an education, believe in ourselves, grasp that we are exceptional and see the impossible as always possible. It is magical thinking. And magical thinking is the only real commodity the elites have left to offer us. Make American Great Again. Or American already is great. Take your pick of idiotic clichés.

“We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more than the world can give us or than we can make of the world,” Boorstin wrote. “We demand that everyone who talks to us, or writes for us, or takes pictures for us, or makes merchandise for us, should live in our world of extravagant expectations. We expect this even of the peoples of foreign countries. We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality. We demand them. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid.”

The incessant search for instant gratification and the most appealing image, including the image of ourselves we manufacture for others on social media, has robbed us of the ability to examine ourselves and our society. It has extinguished the truth. The terminal decline of the American empire, the utter inability our elites to manage anything important, the climate crisis, widespread poverty and despair do not fit with the illusion. So these realities are blotted from public consciousness. The poor are rendered invisible. The foreign policy debacles will be fixed with more bombs. Only the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, along with the medieval Catholic Church, controlled thought as effectively.

Candidates Trump and Clinton have no plans to halt our slide to oblivion. They are part of the circus. They, like all of the other elites, profit from the system that is destroying us. They lack the incentive and probably the capacity to challenge the structures and assumptions that define corporate capitalism. They function as high priests. They peddle the illusions. They laud our ingenuity and strength. They preach the inevitability of human progress and American exceptionalism. They tell us what we want to hear. They appeal to our emotions, as does all of mass culture. They do not acknowledge reality. That would spoil the show.

We vote for slogans, manufactured personalities, perceived sincerity, personal attractiveness and the crafted personal narratives peddled by candidates. Office seekers create the illusion of intimacy established between celebrities and their audiences. We see ourselves in them; admirers of the “winner” Trump see themselves as becoming him. No politician succeeds without such artifice. Today’s politics is just one more product of a diseased culture. Our political leaders are much like the celebrities who, in Boorstin’s words, “are receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness. They are nothing but ourselves seen in a magnifying mirror.”

The incoherent absurdities mouthed for our amusement induce a state of permanent amnesia. Life is lived in an eternal present. How we got here, where we came from, what shaped us as a society, in short the continuum of history that gives us an identity, are eradicated.

The quest for identity through mass culture is self-defeating. We can never achieve what these illusions tell us we can achieve. We can never be who we want to be. It is a ceaseless chase from one chimera to the next. And this is why at the end we fall into despair and rage. It is why huge parts of the country no longer hold genuine political ideas. It is why people vote according to how they feel. It is why hatred and fear are a potent political platform. It is why we are sleepwalking into oblivion.

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Mitski at the Mod Club

November 7, 2016 at 2:51 am (Uncategorized)

I do like live music. I’m just not sure I like concerts anymore.  After a long day, it seems to take more and more of an effort to drag myself downtown to see a show in a club knowing that i won’t get home till late, and I’ll still have to get up early in the morning. I’ve largely given up seeing opening bands (see another post for that rationale), and now my goal is to arrive as close as possible to the headliner coming on stage, see the show and get out (OK, OK, I stay for the encore, – I have to have some standards!)

So, it’s Thursday night, and I’m standing at the Mod club. A sold-out show for Brooklyn’s Mitski. She played the Horseshoe in the summer, but I was out of town. So this time I’m in, but I’m tired. I’m hot. Is it worth it?

It’s 10:30. the band is supposed to be on stage. C’mon, c’mon. I’m already adding set-time and travel time to the point I can be in bed. A guy walks onto the stage. Roadie. He walks around doing a final check. Turns on a light or two. Sits behind the drum kit and does a couple of drum rolls. Shouldn’t they have done this earlier? It’s an extended drum session; then a guitar player, and Mitski herself. We’re on.

And suddenly , it doesn’t matter. The cramps in my calves. The smell of sweat, stale beer and marijuana. The couple making out ahead of me. the guy who thinks I might get a better view of the stage if I watch the show through his phone. None of it matters because this is a moment. this is live. This is now.

I’m not overly familiar with Mitski’s work. I listened the album a few times before the show, but I don’t recognize any of the songs she played. but it’s powerful. Loud guitar, lyrics I can’t barely catch, but something, something. Something authentic. The songs wash over us. We, the crowd as collective, sway. We dance. We embrace the sound. A lot of people sing along. This is what it supposed to be.

And then. the band leaves Mitski along on the stage. A couple of more songs and at the 45 minute mark, it’s over. A one-song encore, and the house lights come on. The feeling fades. I’m disappointed there’s not more, but as the sound and memory recedes, comes the realization. And I have to work tomorrow.

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Halloween 2016

October 31, 2016 at 11:10 pm (Uncategorized)

Just finished carving the pumpkins and hanging the fake spider-web outside the house for Halloween. My mad scientist costume for work still needs a little fine tuning, but I’m getting there. I love Halloween. Still, there’s a couple of things…

My kids attend Toronto District School Board high schools, and while my kids don’t go trick-or-treating anymore, they do bring out the costumes for school. But if you read the Board’s home page, there’s an article on “Hallowe’en” which documents a sixth grader’s observation that while costume shopping he noticed culturally insensitive costumes. No kidding.

the Boy and I went to one of those pop-up Halloween stores last wek looking for a lab coat for his mad scientist costume. “Dad, what’s that smell in here?” he asked as we entede the bulding. “Ah, it’s probably plastic mixed with fear because everyone is keenly aware that if you put an open flame anywhere near this place, it would be engulfed in flames in seconds. And if the flames didn’t kill you, the toxins in the plastic surely would.”

And on we searched. Successfully. As we searched I noted a wig ensemble called “Jamaican Joe.” A Rastafarian hat with fake dreadlocks worn by a white guy. Culturally insensitive? Uh yeah.  At least there weren’t selling blackface gear.

When we found the lab coat, the Boy asked me, “Dad, are all the girls costumes – ”

“Yes, they are.”

Sexy nurse, sexy treasure hunter, sexy goth, sexy teacher, sexy vampire etc (strangely no sexy hooker though). I think the one that wigged him out the most was “sexy nun.” I really wanted to say, well some of them have bad habits, but I restrained myself. I’m not sure what any of this has to do with Halloween.

Still, the plan is after the kids have stopped coming for candy, I’m going to  watch The Exorcist. I read the book when I was younger, and even though I was an atheist then, I was still too scared to see the film.

Happy Halloween

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Hinds Rock the Adelaide Hall

October 30, 2016 at 7:42 pm (Uncategorized)

I’m getting too old for this. No, not too old to go to see a band on a school night; not too old to stay right until the very end (C’mon – you’ve made the decision to go out, you might as well see the whole show). No, I’m too old to see the whole show. I usually try to get there just before the main band comes on. I’ve lost the patience to sit (or worse stand) through opening bands, I’ve never heard of and will likely never again. Of course, there’s  the inherent danger that I will lose bragging rights should they actually become famous(“Oh yeah, I saw the Wardrobes when they opened for Jackie O’s Hat at the Horseshoe in 2008” – upcoming musicians, I give you freedom to steal those names) , but it’s a risk I’m prepared to take.

As it happened, I arrived at the Adelaide Hall 15 minutes before Spanish garage-rockers Hinds took the stage. I can’t help but note every time I go to the Adelaide Hall what a risk I’m taking. The club is in the basement, and it always strikes me that in the event of an emergency, I would likely die down there. Every time I go, I scan for emergency exits, but no luck so far. “He gave his life for rock n roll,” my tombstone will read.  But, nothing happened, and I live to rock again.

Hinds are from Madrid, and I believe this was their first appearance in Canada. I’d streamed a few tracks from their early singles, and they seemed to be that lovable  garage sound which is so entertaining on first releases. Two songs into their set though, I began to wonder if I’d come to see a different Hinds. They were funky pop stars albeit still with a gloriously amateurish over-wash. The band was delightful, and the audience responded appropriately. Then, halfway through their set, the band became the band I had expected, a sort of ramshackle Spanish version of Thee Headcoatees (especially appropriator was their last song cover of the band’s “Davy Crockett”). And we loved them even more. A short set, but when you only have one album, what can you expect?

Great show. Even with the possibility of death. I’m going back to the Adelaide Hall November 5 (ominously Guy Fawkes night for Lydia Loveless)

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