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Wednesday, December 07, 2005


The Letter Hack Is Back

The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions have, as always, generated many lists of ignored worthies. Yesterday at Eric Alterman's MSNBC blog, I responded (scroll down a little to the Correspondence Corner) to a letter writer who asserted that the apparent dearth of important 80s acts will cause the Hall to revisit passed-over 70s musicians.

In a nutshell, I offered my unsung 70s heroes then went on to defend the 1980s as the decade of Sonic Youth, X, and other bands that created essential, innovative music--albeit from the college rock margins. But as I think about it, those bands are going to pose a real dilemma for the Hall, in that they're sorely (if unjustly, but sometimes understandably) lacking in the "Fame" component the Hall strongly prefers.

The next few years are going to show whether the Hall implicitly embraces the commonly held idea that rock "died" by the 1980s. By a number of measures, it did expire. Guitar-based rock ceased to be much of a force on sales or radio charts--aside from the epitaph which was the classic rock format. That conception of rock simply became far less significant to the contemporary mass culture, which itself was in the process of fragmentation along social, economic, regional and political lines.

Of course, the white-guys-with-guitars strain of rock continued to thrive creatively on the college circuit even as it was commercially marginalized. But rock also continued to rule the pop charts as another strain of it mutated into rap and hip hop. It might be difficult for the Hall to embrace the idea that N.W.A. is indeed rock and roll--or at least their kind of rock and roll. I'm not suggesting any racism on their part. Far from it. In their first year they inducted James Brown, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Little Richard and a quartet of white guys (Elvis, Buddy, Jerry Lee and the Everlys) deeply influenced by black music. But rap on its surface (arrangements, focus on rhythym over melody and harmony) seems to many people somehow different in kind from "rock". Can the same Hall that followed the conventional line from Chuck Berry to the Beatles to Parliament to U2 see through all the recent cultural splintering that the line also connects to Dr. Dre and De La Soul? (Not to mention the Replacements and Pixies?) If the Hall can't wrap its head around those forks in the road, sooner or later there will be almost no one left to induct between, say, John Cougar Mellencamp and Nirvana.

As I've said before, the Hall itself is irrelevant--except in how it acts as a mirror and a lens; for reflecting the ways in which we think about and categorize music, and for focusing endlessly debatable attention on which avenues of rock deserve attention. It does both quite imperfectly, but at least it opens up the conversation.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Rotten Liars For Jesus

A central strategy employed by intelligent design proponents is to advocate "teaching the controversy" as a way of introducing their views to schools. The major newspapers have tended to follow suit by reporting the controversy--usually with embarrassing results. Today's roundup article in the Times, on the heels of last week's New Yorker piece on the Dover, PA trial, exhibits elements of that misplaced neutrality, but on balance sticks a hatchet in the movement. The "controversy" such as it is, is akin to the controversy generated by the Flat Earth Society, or the guy on the corner who tries to tell you how he used to own the deed to the city, but there was a conspiracy to steal it from him, but he's geting a laywer, except he can't trust any lawyers because they want to take his semen, etc.

What cripples the ID cause philosophically is that they're all nothing but a bunch of lousy fucking liars. They think they're lying for Christ, which makes it okay, but there are important realms in which simply using sciencey-sounding jargon to dress up your unsupported--and unsupportable--fantasies doesn't wash. Namely, science and law. "This isn't creationism," say the people who simply did a find and replace in their creationist textbooks to accomodate the new spin--and who only came up with ID as a concept once creationism in the schools had been roundly rejected by the courts. "This isn't about God," say the fundamentalist ID pushers, who then turn around and histrionically plead "Who will stand up for Jesus?" "This is science," proclaim the IDers, but when the scientific community calls for papers to subject to peer review, all you hear are chirping crickets. From the Times article:
Mr. Davis [director of Baylor's J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies] noted that the advocates of intelligent design claim they are not talking about God or religion. "But they are, and everybody knows they are," Mr. Davis said. "I just think we ought to quit playing games. It's a religious worldview that's being advanced."
Basing your position on a fundamental lie creates paradoxes. IDers hate real science because it doesn't support their private notions about creation, but they're aware that the trappings of science seem to impress people. So they pretend that their untestable conjecture somehow is science, by dressing up magic with complex-sounding phrases like "irreducible complexity", which really mean "Don't look behind the curtain." They say ID is a valid scientific theory, but then insist that evolution is "just a theory"--relying on the common, unscientific definition of the word "theory" to suggest that evolution is just some flight of fancy dreamed up by a guy who hated baby Jesus. This, of course, is a classic case of projection. Were they not lousy fucking liars, they'd admit that a scientific theory--and evolution is a strongly supported theory--is a conclusion backed up by evidence. Unlike ID, it's a conclusion that's testable, falsifiable, one that can be used to make predictions. John West of the ID-pimping Discovery Institute invokes a cliche of scientific progress in a disingenuous attempt to bolster his case:
"This is natural anytime you have a new controversial idea," Mr. West said. "The first stage is people ignore you. Then, when they can't ignore you, comes the hysteria. Then the idea that was so radical becomes accepted. I'd say we're in the hysteria phase."
Except, you know, previous scientific ideas that were ignored, decried, then eventually embraced (for instance, the idea that the earth orbited the sun) had the bonus of being testable, so that reluctant scientists could see for themselves whether or not the radical new ideas were true. ID says that an unknowable, all-powerful figure (wink wink) must have built these fly wings, 'cause, geez, just look at 'em! End of story, shut up, move on. That may be a lot of things: wishful thinking, a pleasant dream, abject ignorance, utter freaking horseshit--but it's not science. ID is ignored by the actual scientific community not because it's revolutionary and frightening to a bunch of pinheaded careerists (or closet Satanists, take your pick) but because it's totally unscientific. The hysteria isn't based on scientists painfully coming to grips with a new way of looking at the evidence, but has been injected from the outside by groups with religious right-wing political agendas who want to use public schools to indoctrinate kids. And it will never be accepted because it's a lousy fucking lie, based on easily debunked crap "science." And even if it were true, there's no scientific way to approach it. Accepting ID as science means redefining the basic meaning of science to include whatever makes people feel good about themselves, regardless of evidence. As the New Yorker story points out, astrology would be science by this way of "thinking". Creationism will never go away, because illogic is immune to logic, but I hope when the Dover decision comes down (assuming, as widely expected, the ID side loses) it at least slinks back into its cave for a good long while.

Unrelated judgment: I want you sad bastards who refer to "a scissors" rather than scissors to know that you're not fooling anyone. I don't care if it's correct. Stop it.

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