Dissonant Notes

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nationalism, 'Braveheart', and the Scottish Independence Debate




When asked for his opinion on Scottish independence in a recent Daily Record interview, Bobby Gillespie, lead singer with Primal Scream, stated:

“We can’t be nationalistic about it. Nationalism has never done it for me. It leads to fascism.”

Gillespie is seen by some poor souls as a political firebrand but his thinking in regards to nationalism is predictably thoughtless. More disappointing are the opinions of comedian Billy Connolly, who dismissed the Scottish Parliament as a “wee pretendy parliament” and went on to say:

“I hate nationalism. If you look at the history of nationalism, you will find the history of war and horror.”

To be fair to Connolly, he has since refused to have anything to do with the No campaign and publicly stated that he will happily endorse whatever decision Scottish voters decide to make. The main purpose in quoting him was to highlight a disturbingly commonplace view in regards to nationalism that exists in the UK. This view paints nationalism as a fascistic, anachronistic, and dangerous philosophy. The reason why is because nationalism is consistently equated with Hitler and the Nazi Party. All other instances of nationalism are forgotten and, without fail, the Nazi Party are wheeled out. What this viewpoint fails to do is separate the race-based nationalism of the Nazi Party from the modern civic nationalism of the SNP. What it also fails to do is recognise that more often than not nationalism is the end result of war and colonialism, not the cause.

The modern nation-state is a relatively young creation. In Europe, there is a tendency to confuse tribal groupings and early administrative regions with nation-states. The modern German nation came into existence in 1871, but people talk of Germany as if it has existed since time immemorial because of the existence of Germanic tribes and the Holy Roman Empire. Modern Italy was born in 1861. These modern nation-states came into being as a result of people joining together for the common cause of establishing sovereignty after suffering domination under a foreign overlord. Again and again nationalism was forged under the anvil of an outside threat. The great irony of the current Scottish independence debate is that, by scorning Scottish nationalism, voters are passively throwing their hat in with perhaps the most murderous and destructive nationalism in the history of the modern era: British nationalism.

When Winston Churchill said "It makes me sick when I hear the Secretary Of State say of India, 'She will do this,' and 'She will do that.' India is an abstraction.... India is no more a political personality than Europe. India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator”, he failed to notice the great irony in his statement. The British Empire created Indian nationalism by attempting to subdue and rule the people in the geographical region known as India. Indians united against the British Raj. Irish nationalism was the result of British rule. America was born as an act of resistance against Britain. Nationalism has always been a bulwark against oppression. Is it any wonder that so many in Britain speak derisively of nationalism (unless it is the unspoken but always superior British kind)? Nationalism destroyed the British Empire. Nationalism broke up the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Nationalism is now threatening the very notion of the United Kingdom.

So when does nationalism become toxic? When it becomes race-based. The Germanic nationalism that flourished under Hitler was a perfect example of tribalism and race-based nationalism (and a culmination of centuries of European anti-semitism). The relationship between race-based nationalism and civic nationalism is as close as the relationship between a totalitarian state and a modern liberal democracy. Anyone using Stalinist Russia to dismiss any and all forms of government would rightfully be dismissed. Yet those who invoke Hitler at the mere mention of nationalism are given an audience. British nationalism, with its barely concealed white supremacy and history of oppression, war, and colonialism, is closer in spirit to Hitler than Scottish nationalism. The only reason the British Empire faltered was because oppressed people fought back. Britain did not recede out of some innate sense of decency and fair play; it was beaten back by rising tides of nationalism.

With that in mind, is Scottish nationalism race-based? Absolutely not. When Scottish author William McIlvanney gave a speech in 1992 before a crowd of Scottish nationalists he famously stated “Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition”. The response was cheering and applause from the listeners -- hardly the Beer Hall Putsch. Being Scottish does not mean being Celtic. Yes, ancient Scotland was created by a uniting of Scots and Picts, but for a true picture of Scottish genetics you have to throw in a bit of Danish, some Norwegian, some Anglo-Saxon, and some Norman. For a more modern view, add a lot of Irish, some Italian, some Lithuanian, some Polish, some Jewish, some Pakistani, some Chinese, some Indian, some African, some Caribbean, and a lot of English. In truth, you are more likely to hear complaints about too many immigrants from Unionists rather than Scottish nationalists. These same Unionists claim that Scottish nationalism is anti-English, while at the same time denying that a sizable aspect of Scottish society is anti-Irish. Nobody would be so foolish as to claim that Scotland does not have problems with racism, but it is a fact that extremist parties like the UKIP have no foothold in Scotland, and any people that do support them are much more likely to be waving a Union Jack than a Saltire.

British nationalism is also dangerous because when it looks in the mirror it does not recognise its own reflection. Despite invading the vast majority of the globe, many Brits seem to think that British nationalism does not exist. There is a notion that British identity is merely an evolved point that all will reach when they outgrow such squalid notions as nationalism and race. Scots who speak of rejecting independence by rejecting Scottish nationalism clearly agree with such a notion, but what they fail to acknowledge is that choosing British nationalism means siding with a more powerful nationalism, siding with a nationalism that is built on an inherent sense of superiority, and siding with a nationalism which includes a lot more dangerous race-based thinking.

When Margaret Thatcher made her famous statement “There is no such thing as society” she was essentially saying that a people should not look to a government for help. Her philosophy was that government protected private property and the free market and everyone else was on their own. This same philosophy was contradicted by the power she wielded while Prime Minister. She wanted to wean Brits from welfare while, at the same time, using the power of government to intentionally put thousands out of a job. The influence, wealth, and property of the British aristocracy was protected. The privileges of the Royal Family remained in place. The poor had to make do. Her larger context was that the individual was the only true agent in society. Neighbourhoods, communities, counties, regions, and nations were merely historical accidents. While Conservatives endorsed this philosophy in principle, they did so draped in a Union Jack. Mutterings about the French and the Germans and the EU were made with the implication being that Britain was superior because it had moved beyond nationalism. Britain must be Great again by telling mainland Europe to mind its own business and let Brits run their own country. This viewpoint was not seen as dangerous nationalism. Yet, when the SNP makes gains in Scotland on a philosophy of civic nationalism, they are routinely compared to Nazis (and accused of being bullies).

The end of nationalism would be convenient for neo-liberal proponents of globalisation who wish to make every citizen of earth forget their communal and national ties and become wealth-seeking individuals. Communities and nations with a strong bond threaten the entire notion of globalisation. With these thoughts in mind, the tendency to equate Scottish nationalism with German nationalism of the Third Reich becomes more sinister. Scottish independence will apparently leave Scotland less protected from a military standpoint. So a philosophy of less militarism is analogous with Nazi Germany? The SNP supports a more open immigration policy, the exact opposite of Nazi Germany. Let us have no more talk of nationalism meaning fascism. It is an empty argument from people who do not even believe what they are saying. It would be an insult to compare Indian nationalism to Nazi Germany. Attempts to tar Scottish nationalists with the same brush should be met with contempt.

The other charge laid at the feet of nationalism is its anachronistic and emotive nature. Critics of Scottish independence constantly invoke Braveheart, that Hollywood travesty based on the life of Scottish folk hero William Wallace. It isn’t going too far to say that it is an obsession for many No supporters. Scottish (not British) nationalism is seen as not only highly fascistic but also childish and sentimental. The main problem with this argument is how completely and utterly false it is. The Yes campaign has appealed to voters on any number of issues, from democratic to economic ones, yet to many No supporters the Yes campaign is fueled by Braveheart-derived sentiments. This is nothing but a cheap ploy that seeks to undermine calls for real democratic maturity. It attempts to paint nationalism as a thing of the past instead of a modern development. The fact that Scotland was one of the earliest European nations to declare itself independent (after uniting against English invaders) should not fool anyone into thinking that nationalism is a despicable trait to be left behind. On the contrary, nationalism is a stage all modern nation-states must pass through.

Scottish nationalism fell by the wayside after Scotland came under the umbrella of the United Kingdom. The energies released by the Union with England in 1707 produced the Scottish Enlightenment, but soon after Scotland found itself bereft of a sense of culture. Walter Scott looked to the romance of the highlands in order to drape Scotland with tartan and, while this provided Scotland with an identity distinct from England, Scottish writers and artists after Sir Walter found themselves ignored or marginalised. Irish writer John Millington Synge wrote that one the weaknesses in the writings of Goethe was that he had “no national and intellectual mood to interpret”. This same criticism could be made of Scottish writing after the Scottish Enlightenment had become a memory. Celebrated British novels tended to be English, and it could be argued that Scotland did not produce a Joyce or a Yeats as no national mood existed. While Scottish businessmen used their British identity to get a leg up in the colonies, Scottish culture suffered under the Union. The Scottish people were British in a legal sense, but they could never be representative of Britain. Only the English could be truly British. Scotland has still not fully entered a mature phase of nationalism. It had marched proudly through the door and then promptly got lost as Britishness became a byword for Englishness and Scottishness sat dutifully on the sidelines. It is no coincidence Scottish writing started to regain much of its vitality in the early to mid-20th century as a national mood grew and Scottish identity slowly reconstructed itself.

Those who reject Scottish nationalism must accept that, in doing so, they endorse British nationalism. They are not rejecting nationalism. They are in fact pledging allegiance to one of the most divisive, destructive, and power hungry forms of nationalism ever set loose on the earth. To claim that British nationalism is a thing of the past is to ignore the rise of the UKIP, whose anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalist stance has more than a whiff of race-based nationalism. A strong post-Empire English/British national identity free from triumphalism has yet to materialise. In contrast, the Scottish nationalist agenda is free from race-based thinking. It has produced no calls for less immigration or for the defunding of multicultural programs. On the contrary, Scottish nationalism has an internationalist feel. At heart it is a call for civic nationalism, a demand for true democracy, and a chance for Scotland to break away from a two-party system which has nothing to lose by ignoring Scottish voters. Scottish nationalism has grown according to the desires of Scottish voters and, as such, its spirit is democratic. There are undoubtedly many credible reasons for voting No in September, but a dislike of nationalism is not one of them. As long as Scottish nationalism is viewed as childish or, worse, fascistic, then a fog of misunderstanding will drift through the independence debate. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a vote for Scottish independence is an act of atavistic desperation. The opposite is actually true. A Yes vote has the potential be the most radical, the most democratic, and the most vital vote that you have ever cast.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Axe for Judas: Bob Dylan and the Obsolescence of Pete Seeger



The recent passing of folk singer Pete Seeger provoked a sizable amount of reaction on the internet and beyond. The general consensus was that Pete Seeger was a man of substance, a man of integrity, a man willing to take a stand and to fight for what he believed in. What nobody wanted to mention was that, by the time he died, Pete Seeger was almost completely irrelevant. The reasons for his irrelevance can be traced back to the schism which erupted in 1965 when Bob Dylan abandoned folk music. Dylan’s decision to embrace rock music left folk looking like a puritan cult for the morally self-righteous. Folk music meant rules, rock music meant freedom. Pete Seeger remained on the side of folk and in doing so he was left behind by the emerging counter-culture and left looking like the spokesman for an age whose time had come and gone.

When Pete Seeger began his long career, American folk music was very much connected with political radicalism and civil rights. Seeger himself was a pacifist, a socialist, and a union supporter. All the strands of American political activism came together under the banner of folk music. Folk songs were the songs of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalised. Folk music had a strong moral voice which questioned and harried the American establishment while pushing for change and equality. By the early 1960s the folk music revival was in full swing and Seeger was an active voice in the movement. It was into this arena that Bob Dylan stepped. Initially, Dylan’s songwriting was in tune with folk music’s moral voice. Soon enough, however, Dylan began to tire of folk music and in 1965 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival with a full electric band. The legend states that Seeger, who was present for Dylan’s performance, made a quip about wanting to take an axe to the electric cables. Dylan was stung by Seeger’s criticisms. To make matters worse Dylan was called Judas by an angry fan when playing a show in England. The jibe was generally interpreted as an angry response from a folk purist who was frustrated by Dylan’s choice to play with a full electric band.



Dylan’s decision to go electric, and the angry response from some folk fans, rendered the folk protest movement obsolete. Suddenly folk purists were seen as behind the times and overtly traditional. Pete Seeger was almost overnight viewed as a dinosaur, a leftover from some unenlightened era where people were hung up about politics and race. The new individual that Dylan represented viewed such political shenanigans as a drag. It would be wrong to say that all political radicalism immediately disappeared. Clearly there were massive protests against Vietnam and it was not unusual for counter-culture figures to have run-ins with the police. Yet Dylan’s individualism gradually replaced political agitation. Suddenly it was about being yourself, finding yourself, and not being caged by any ideologies or societal constructs. While the blues was created as a result of white supremacy and manufactured exclusion and poverty, the new individual said that it wasn’t about race, that anyone could play the blues. The end result was blues music being dominated by middle-class white males. While country and folk was the product of poverty and was mostly played by the white working class, the new individual said that class didn’t matter, as long as you had soul. The end result was country and folk being dominated by middle-class white males. Staggeringly privileged individuals like Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt became legendary as America’s middle-class took on the mannerisms of the poor while liberating the music from any buzz kill associations with politics. The new individual sang about heartbreak, sadness, and problems with alcohol. The universalism of the topics showed that these individuals had transcended race and class and were singing songs for the ages. The fact that modern Americana music is dominated by white middle-class males should give us all pause for thought about what has actually been transcended.

Dylan stripped folk music of its radical roots and made it safe for the bourgeois by turning art into a Rorschach test. People could take whatever they wanted from Dylan songs. In this new world of art, politics had no place. Other than vague protestations about the whole damn system being corrupt, politics was too spiky, too defined, and too bothersome for the new individual. Falling back on American libertarian traditions, the new individual just wanted to be left alone to take whatever they wanted from the music they listened to. Pete Seeger had no place in the world of the new individual unless he was viewed as a big cuddly grandad who sang ‘Kumbaya’ beside the campfire. He could be admired from a certain distance, but if you got too close and you would start to notice that he was a committed socialist, and that kind of thinking gets people uncomfortable. The moment Dylan went electric and abandoned social protest for cryptic and absurd lyricism the world moved with him, leaving Pete Seeger on the sidelines looking like a remnant from some bygone age. Seeger carried on regardless and stayed productive and political up to his last days while Dylan’s newfound approach soon floundered. It became apparent that after the initial rush of freedom that Dylan felt after abandoning folk and going electric he really had nothing to say. Despite occasional flickers, Dylan’s lyricism has never scaled the heights of his early 1960’s work and nobody seems to mind. He is still treated like a genius and, worse still, his music is approached as if the lyrics have moral substance. Dylan and his fans see no problem with lamenting the pitfalls of modern life one minute and then appearing in an underwear commercial the next. His actions are shrugged off as if to question them is foolish. This is Bob Dylan. He can do whatever he wants. The new individual is answerable to no one.

Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger represented two very different approaches to life and art. When we chose Dylan over Seeger we opted for an eternal adolescence free from constraints, responsibilities, or commitments. We grounded our idea of individuality on bourgeois notions of self that demanded we forget any aspect of ourselves that might lead to tension or engagement. Race, class, gender, and sexuality were just labels, man, and if we wanted to be free we had to forget those things (of course the unspoken part was that affluent straight white males were already free and everyone else needed to catch up and evolve). We chose Dylan over Seeger and as such we got the neutered, depoliticised art that we deserved. The more obsolete Pete Seeger became, the safer it was to praise him. He came across as a warm and fuzzy grandparent, not a firebrand political radical. With the advent of his death, he can now be lionized for possessing qualities which are almost completely absent from folk, country, or bluegrass. Post 1965 Dylan gave us the vague, politically blank music that was demanded by middle-class suburbanites hell bent on defining individuality as something which lacked, rather than possessed, notable characteristics. The fact that many see Dylan as some kind of heir to Seeger rather than a break from the folk tradition that Seeger stayed loyal to shows how confused our understanding of folk music really is. Dylan used the moral force (and the melodies) of folk music to create his reputation only to abandon it when the movement he hitched a ride on demanded more from him than he was willing to give. Pete Seeger ended his days relatively obscure but defiantly unchanged. Dylan has become a highly paid car salesman. Seeger lost his relevance but kept his dignity. Dylan betrayed everything his early work stood for, yet in doing so he helped create the conditions which allowed him to escape censure. The new individual lives free from repercussions and we do Pete Seeger a disservice to imagine that what he believed in was in any way similar to what Dylan believes in.




Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas




Whenever discussions about authenticity crop up, which they often do, the urge to debunk is strong. Artists claiming ‘street’ credibility are subject to scrutiny and ridicule. While this is a healthy approach in general (one should always be on the lookout for spurious claims of authenticity) it has led to the assumption that almost all great art is ultimately made by the middle-classes. David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, sums up this attitude neatly in an interview conducted by Simon Reynolds. In the interview, available in Reynolds’ book Totally Wired, Thomas makes the claim that all adventurous art is middle-class in origin.

"This is the strength of our upbringing. This is why all adventurous art is done by middle-class people. Because middle-class people don’t care. “I’m going to do what I want, because I can do something else better and make more money than this.” If you sit down and make a list of the people you consider to be adventurous in pop music, I’d bet you lots that the vast majority of them are middle-class."

When Reynolds mentions The Beatles, Thomas scoffs:

"Do you really think The Beatles were working-class? Really? The Beatles were not working-class."

Now, the last thing I want to do is talk about The Beatles. Yet I find it interesting that it is now an accepted ‘fact’ that The Beatles were middle-class. The proof of this claim seems to rest on the fact that, after his working-class parents abandoned him, a caring Aunt with middle-class aspirations brought John Lennon up in a relatively well-to-do Liverpool suburb. He did not attend private school. His education was no different from other working-class children. All the other Beatles came from stalwart working-class backgrounds. Ringo’s household was certainly the worst-off but, in regards to the other Beatles, working-class does not mean destitute. It means working people with no means of income other than selling their labour. Yet somehow, over the course of time, The Beatles became middle-class. This reeks of class appropriation and class prejudice. Apparently thousands of people cannot accept the fact that a group as inventive and adventurous as The Beatles were working-class. David Thomas repeats this illegitimate claim with no evidence. He believes it, other people believe it, and therefore it is the truth. Typical middle-class thinking.


It surely does not need pointing out that almost every adventurous musical innovation of the 20th Century came from working-class origins. The blues, jazz, country, rock’n'roll, soul, reggae, disco, r&b, hip-hop, techno, house; the list goes on. It would take a mixture of ignorance and arrogance on a monumental scale to appropriate all of these innovations for the middle-classes. David Thomas certainly fits this criteria. After claiming all adventurous art comes from the middle-classes, he then claims that only Americans are fit to play rock’n'roll, and people from other countries have no business playing it.

"Nobody would in their right mind argue that an English band could play African tribal music as well as African tribal people. So where do you get this idea that English people can play rock music – the folk music of America – in any authentic way?"

He then goes on to quote Russian music critic Artemis Trotsky who said:

"The most ordinary amateur garage band in America has more authenticity and fire and soul than the most adventurous band from England, because they’re playing the music of their blood."

Thomas endorses this claim by saying:

"In any bar in America you can find ordinary musicians playing rock music of such high quality that it puts to shame stuff from other countries. That’s because it’s in their blood."

This little fantasy ignores one very salient fact; the vast majority of white Americans in 1960 had no idea about America’s musical heritage because it was music made by African-Americans and working-class whites. There’s a reason the average bar in America in 1960 did not shake with rock music, the reason being that, even after the advent of Elvis, listening to music made by black people was still frowned upon. Suburban teens learned of America’s rich musical heritage from the writing credits on Rolling Stones’ albums, not because it was in their blood. If it had not been for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks and Them, all groups who worshiped black American musicians, then middle-class Americans would have remained ignorant of the music of their blood. It was a well-known fact that blues guitarists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf would play to packed houses in Britain, be treated like royalty and have nervous young Brits hanging on their every word, and then return to segregated America and play to half-empty bar rooms.

The truth is, while British bands were playing Chuck Berry, embryonic American garage bands were cutting their chops on ‘Gloria’ by Them. In other words, rock music is a British creation that Americans subsequently copied. Bob Dylan named his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home in reference to the fact that British bands had shown Americans music from their own country that they didn’t know existed and now it was time for an American to take these influences back.


                       

Black musicians were outcasts in their own country. They lived their lives on the sidelines instead of being treated like the musical innovators that they actually were. By claiming that rock music is authentic American music that only Americans are fit to play, David Thomas is reveling in unbearable ignorance. On the one hand, he casually appropriates the music of African-Americans and poor rural whites while on the other hand also claims ownership of this music on behalf of all Americans and disallows all non-Americans from participating. The actual music made by white people in the early 60s had almost no connection to the musical heritage America would soon discover. Thomas ignores the fact that the middle-classes scorned ‘race music’, ignores the political and cultural segregation that led to jazz and blues. He then claims that as a white middle-class male he has the right to pass judgment on non-American rock bands.

When reminded by Reynolds that there is really no such thing as American ‘blood’ and that America was and remains highly segregated Thomas makes perhaps his most startling claim of all. After Reynolds puts it to Thomas that America does not really have a ‘melting pot’, Thomas replies by saying:

"Yes, we do. Only recently, since people like Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders have taken over, has it been less successfully melted."

In his greatest feat of arrogance, Thomas ignores the economic and social damage wrought by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and blames an African-American woman for making America a less integrated place! Only moronic middle-class thinking could leap to this kind of conclusion.

What proof does Thomas offer up of the connectedness of American music? Greil Marcus.

"Images are created – seminal things like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That image has possessed writers endlessly from the moment it was heard. I've written probably a dozen songs based on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Read Greil Marcus’s ‘Mystery Train’, it’s all about the passing on of communal images."

There you have it. Greil Marcus wrote about it in Mystery Train and it sure seems plausible so therefore it is undoubtedly historical fact. Marcus, ever determined to put a poetic, romantic spin on the music he writes about, has a habit of making dubious connections between songs that feel aesthetically pleasing but bear no resemblance to historical fact. Over-romanticising American history can lead a person to ignore what were very troubling realities. The 20s and 30s were not so much ‘Old Weird America’ but rather ‘Hellish Segregated Morally Repugnant Murderous Racist America’.



A black male living in the south in the 30s risked being lynched for even looking at a white woman in a way she or her husband found distasteful. Apparently, this was the ideal melting pot for America until Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders came along. What David Thomas has done in this interview, and in his thinking, is to allow white, middle-class America to take ownership of images, music, and emotions that did not belong to them. Separated by race and class, the music of early 20th century America came out of poverty, out of prejudice, out of spirit-crushing realities faced on a day-to-day basis, realities that white middle-class Americans need never face.

Art belongs to no particular group or class, however, and the nature of culture means that Art becomes the property of all. Yet David Thomas, after appropriating music from out with his race and class, then condemns others for playing music that supposedly does not belong to them. I've read many interviews by musicians. Some show remarkable intelligence, some show a disappointing lack of wit. Never have I read an interview that has such ignorance, such stupidity, such thoughtless arrogance, as the one in Totally Wired with David Thomas. He insults the working-class by claiming they are all but incapable of making adventurous art (I’m sure Mark E. Smith would beg to differ), he insults African-Americans by appropriating their Art and claiming it for all Americans, he insults non-American rock bands, and he actually claims that an African-American woman is partly responsible for making America more segregated (this seems like a variation on the tired theme of ‘race problems would go away if we stopped talking about them’).

To be honest, I’d probably care more if Thomas weren't so irrelevant, if his ‘career’ didn't consist of two decent albums made decades ago. Nevertheless the interview contains enough moronic thinking, the kind that often passes for fact in America and elsewhere, that I feel it is my duty to bring others’ attention to it. The fantasy world that David Thomas inhabits reeks of privilege and conceit. Perhaps I expected a bit more intelligence, a bit more individuality, a bit more adventurousness to his thinking. Then again, he is a white middle-class American male. We can’t expect too much.


(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)