Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Blue Meanies of Our Age

I've recently been re- viewing an old childhood favorite of mine, the Beatles animated classic, "The Yellow Submarine", a psychedelic, pun-filled journey with the animated Beatles as they transverse through various seas, and use music as a weapon against the "Blue Meanies". I started reflecting on how succinctly the film depicts the cultural conflicts of its age, and what that means for us today.

The Beatles animated film was both a product of its time and a precursor of what was to come. The Beatles were, at the time, in the midst of the maelstrom of their time, culturally, politicaly and spiritually. Society was at a turning point. Social forces that had, up to that time, been kept in check, were now ready to be unleashed upon society.

The film's writers, no doubt strongly influenced by the messages and themes inherent in the Beatle's songs, could not help but be aware of the powerful currents of change in society at that time. The old order was crumbling. The new order and its ascendance was unmistakably present. The question was whose side were you on? The film's message, on the surface, seems to be a children's tale of the power of love and positivism. On a deeper level, however, the Beatles themselves are caught between the two sides, embodying this cultural conflict within themselves.

The two sides, representing love and madness, are embodied by the opposite forces, the residents of Pepperland and the Blue Meanies.

The residents of Pepperland, as well as Jeremy Boob, represent the traditional culture- one that valued order, authority, intellectual and artistic pursuits. It is no accident that Old Fred is represented as playing the violin. The rulers of Pepperland are so ancient that "Young Fred" seems to be at least 70 years old. Old Fred is positively ancient. Old Fred, as well as Boob, are, unfortunately, too out of touch to respond to the forces of evil in their midst. Old Fred, when warned of imminent attack, responds with, "They wouldn't dare". Boob, the "Nowhere Man", is helpless until the very end. Only George's advice, to box the Meanie, enables him to defend himself.

The meanies represent the forces of fascism and nihilism. Hating all beauty, they shout, "A thing of beauty, destroy it forever." Likewise, they hate music above all. The word "know", representing knowledge, is replaced by "no", negativity and oppression. They seem to have much in common with the communists, with their draconian rules and one-party system, or with Fascism. The people under the iron fist of authority (represented by the flying glove) become monochromatic and dull, as all that is beautiful is prohibited. 

The blue meanies of the arts and academia do not merely want to destroy things of beauty, then, they want to destroy the very idea of the beautiful, by erasing all memory of beauty. Snatches of beauty, heard throughout the film, are reminescences of long-forgotten beauty, and are quickly dismantled. In the sea of monsters, we hear a strain of Bach, only to be blown up by the monster's cigar. The traditional arts, based on studying the art of the past, and building on this structure, are here represented by the old-fashioned residents of Pepperland, with their love of art, music and culture. 

The art and music scene, as well as the realm of philosophy and the humanities, was being beset by the forces of nihilism at the height of the 60's. Andy Warhol was making what could be termed "anti-art", turning art into a commodity. This was not accidental; Warhol conceived his art as an extension of mass marketing and pop culture- it was meant to be as "throwaway" as the culture it represented. John Cage did similar things with music. Both were taking "rubbish" of consumer society and transforming it into art, thereby reducing art and music to a commodity, a temporary pleasure based more on the experience of the viewer or public than the intentions of the artist. 

According to Douglas Shearer: 

  •  "Traditionally, art expresses the noblest impulses of the specific culture that produces it.  But American art, since Andy Warhol, profanes the noble and ennobles the profane. And that's typically American: Americans distrust 'all embracing cultural ethics' because they threaten "personal choice". That thought underlies Warhol's two most famous paintings, 'Brillo box' and 'Tomato Can'." 

"Beauty is Truth, truth beauty"- the opposite of this belief is the idea that there is no truth, or that truth is relative. Similarly, then, beauty cannot be absolute. A garbage pail could, according to nihilistic philosophy, be just as beautiful as a flower. 

Nihilism can often be seen in the realm of film. Mean-spirited films, full of unlikeable characters, often with downbeat endings, seek to punish the viewer into a dismal, hopeless view of life. The effects of continual demoralization can be seen everywhere. On the archetypal level, good triumphing over evil is the "default" Thema, and can be seen in every culture, in folktales, art and poetry. The Blue Meanies, in their hatred of such words as "yes" or "love" and their especial hatred of music and the divine impulses that it engenders in us, would have been pleased to see our society destroyed by nihilism and the amorality that goes with it. 

The old order, which included a love of learning for its own sake, is mockingly represented in the person of Jeremy Boob, who is full of knowledge, yet lonely and foolish. Lord Mayor and even Young Fred are, at best, incompetent. It is their incompetence and unwillingness to recognize the looming danger of the Blue Meanies that spells their disaster.  

Nihilism, however, is a non-sustainable belief that contains its own destruction. It is like a virus that eventually destroys its host. The sucker monster sucks up everything in its path, including its own tail, much like the old masonic symbol of a snake eating its own tail. Similarly, the sentence, "There is no absolute truth" contradicts itself, for the sentence itself, then, cannot be true. The prohibition against absolute truths and absolute beauty must, and will, be destroyed.

The Beatles themselves straddle the two extremes. Indeed, their music, at the time, embodied both musical traditions, employing ragtime, skiffle, blues and classical influences as well as avante garde influences, such as Musique Concrete, atonality and free jazz. Similarly, their philosophy, as expressed in the film, is at times, simplistic, such as "All you need is love". At other times, Eastern philosophy, and its emphasis on the unreality of reality is expressed, by George saying, "It's all in the mind". 

Often, the Beatles give practical advice that had never occurred to the older generation, as typified by "Young Fred".  "Press a button", they tell Young Fred, starting the submarine. At one point, John must turn the hands of the clock forwards so they will stop going backwards in time, something that did not occure to the hapless, helpless Young Fred. In a way, they are a fusion of both old and new ways of thinking, eager to experiment, but giving the residents of Pepperland new life through their music.

In Pepperland, evil is defeated by love. This is the message of the film, in a kernel- that love conquers all. This optimistic, upbeat message epitomizes the very spirit of the sixties generation, with its sense of boundless possibilities.

Unfortunately, the optimism of the 60's was soon shattered. Evil forces are not so easily won over. The first signs were assassination of four unarmed peace protesters at Kent State University in 1970 and the government-approved murders of Dr. King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy. The subsequent virtual takeover  of the US government by the Military Industrail Complex and the CIA proved to many that a peaceful victory over evil was virtually impossible. 

In our time, the creation of a CIA-sponsored "Islamist" movement in the Middle East (which mimics the "Pepperland" Blue Meanies by hating music and the arts), as well as a government- engineered corporation-friendly "Christian Right" movement designed to uproot and supplant the burgeoning Liberation Theology Movement, are more signs that the Blue Meanies are now in charge.

American Babylon- Can America Be Saved?

A huge change occurred in the 1920's, just after the "War to End all Wars" drew to a conclusion.

It was a change that hardly anyone, outside of a few crotchety old folks, bothered to notice.

It was the biggest change in culture that the US, and by extension, the now- US dominated European powers, had ever witnessed. This change in cultural mores, long in the making, was, in the 1920's, for the first time, out in the open: a change in clothing, behavior, music, the arts and the humanities. It was the beginning of a new age of crassness, cynicism, decadence and nihilism. Many trace the beginnings of this new nihilism to the opium dens and bordellos of Paris and Berlin, but the origins were firmly in the world's new cultural capital: New York City.

America had been a pioneer land, a land of farmers and manufacturers. America's cultural output had long sought to emulate European models, cultural models firmly rooted in Europe's Christian heritage. This would all change. Along with the change in culture, came a change in values; no longer were the good of society and the upholding of integrity and honor of highest benefit; instead, the new era celebrated the individual, and the self-aggrandization of the self as the supreme good. The bootlegger, mobster, robber baron and burlesque queen were the new reigning cultural heroes. How one gained success, whether through ingenuity or graft, was now beside the point.

William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming", written in the aftermath of WWI, clearly explicates this new moral illness that has taken its grip upon the West. As  prophesied by Yeats:
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

That this change was accompanied by Prohibition, a  puritanical movement akin in spirit to Oliver Cromwell's ill-fated takeover of British society in the 1600's, is all the more ironic. Cultural descents into nihilism and decay are almost inevitably linked to counter-movements which seek to enforce morality through law. In such times, as man loses the moral fibre and will to control the beast within, he turns desperately to outward authority, hoping to quell the rising tide of inner chaos.  Although Prohibition sought to fight the outward symptoms, the inner decay and rot had firmly set in, and we began, to paraphrase Robert Bork, "slouching toward Gommorah".

As this change in attitudes occurred, the fruits began to show- changes in modesty, morality, ethics, music and politics. America began to follow the path that brought down ancient Rome. As in latter day Rome, moralists who decried these developments were scoffed at as being "old fashioned". Seneca had decried the changes that he saw in ancient Rome. Tacitus, in his famed "Annals", had stated that Rome's moral degeneracy was the root cause of its decline; similarly, a decline in the American Empire is taking place, one that began in the years after the first World War.

The first obvious change was in standards of modesty. Suddenly, for the first time since the Christianization of Europe, we began to see women dressing immodestly.  For thousands of years, fashions had changed, and hemlines had gone up and down, always settling somewhere between knee length and floor length. Women in ancient Phoenecia and Egypt, as in many pre-Christian civilizations, had freely exposed their thighs and breasts; in Christian countries, this was unheard of. After the 1920's, however, it became soon hard to tell the difference between a prostitute and a housewife, as more and more women began to emulate the behaviors and fashions of prostitutes.

As in latter-day Rome, women's clothing became more and more skimpy. What began then, with the slight raising of hemlines, ends in today's society, in which 10 year old girls prance about in skin-tight clothes, hotpants and bare midriffs, and pedophiles and perverts snatch them off the streets to do as they like with them. Women of all walks of life are referred to as "hos" in today's popular music, and those who take offense are seen as "uptight". This is the shadow side to our much-vaunted "sexual liberation".

Another change would occur in music. Gone were "romantic" sentiments, now replaced by crass admonitions to "give a kiss", or "make love".  Of course, by modern eyes, these popular tunes are slightly risque, but nothing new. However, what we now, in out corrupt era, see as kitschy and quaint, was at the time shocking. This change in sexual mores was predictably coupled with a rise in divorce and abortion. We have now progressed to the point that premarital sex is taken for granted, and parents can expect to accompany their children to the drugstore to buy their first condoms. But is this "progress" or the sign of a culture and society collapsing? The values that existed for centuries have been thrown aside, with nothing to replace them but negation, or facile exhortations to "do what seems right".

Before the 20's, a woman could expect that her first kiss might be on her wedding night, or at least on the day of her engagement. After the 20's, however, the norms had changed, and women were encouraged to kiss as many men as possible. Soon, by the 50's, the standard was "heavy petting".  By the 60's, free sex was the standard.   We now are seeing an era in which many teens are considered "uncool" and "uptight" unless they participate in orgies. Girls are constantly bombarded with images of Snookie or "reality TV" stars sleeping around and getting pregnant. Even worse, not only do we espouse these new "virtues", we export them worldwide, in the form of "entertainment", all the while holding a hypocritical stance, by pretending to be "shocked".  We have become the new Babylon, a nation that seduces the world with hedonism. Is it any wonder that many countries call America the "great Satan"?

In the 1920's, a commonly held belief was that the new mania for jazz, with its syncopated rhythms and "African" influences, could be held to blame for the sudden sea change in cultural values. This glib response can be seen to be overly simplistic. It would be putting the cart before the horse. The new ideals were as equally expressed by Stravinsky's paganistic "Rite of Spring" as by boogie-woogie piano playing.  As opposed the what Nietzsche called the "Apollonian" side of culture, that which seeks balance and structure, we were now moving into the realm of the "Dionysian"- the irrational, the delusional, the fanatical side of human nature.

As a matter of fact, jazz progressed very rapidly from being simply a new syncopated dance form to being a full-fledged art music; in just a couple decades, it threw off the shackles of populism, and with its introspective passages and an intellectual language of its own,  began to strive towards being an art music. Concurrently, as jazz became more artistic, however, it was seen as more and more culturally irrelevant- as well as less financially lucrative- by the music business.  African American music reached a peak in the 1950's and 1960's, and was instrumental in giving African Americans a new, more positive image. Motown, Gospel R and B and jazz became popular all over the world; at this point, the music was a positive force.

Gradually, this, too, began to change and devolve; the "black music" that is been promoted today is more the doing of white businessmen who promote the stereotype of the black prostitute and criminal, as a means to have their cake and eat it too- to promote debauchery, all the while using "black culture" as a convenient front.

Thus the racist naysayers of the early 20th century were proved wrong by their earlier prophesy that jazz, as "black music" would be the undoing of America. What has, in reality, been the undoing of America, and its musical culture,  is the unfettered capitalism of the music "industry". Music, always at the behest of patronage, became a "product" in a coolly objective machine of advertising, payola and graft, and as a result, became objectified and debased. In Classical music, as well, the intelligentsia has replaced tradition with "deconstructed" music. Nowadays, the more chaotic and lifeless the music is, the more popular it is with music critics.

The content of popular music and entertainment has also changed dramatically over the past century. Once, most popular songs dealt with home, hearth, family and love, as well as heart-felt religious sentiment.  Films, once light-hearted dramas and comedies featuring the triumph of good over evil, happy-ending romances and musicals, have become bloodbaths with foul-mouthed criminal "anti-heroes". Good is seldom portrayed; godliness is unheard of, and the word "irreverent" now is taken to be the highest praise for any form of entertainment. Scoffing at "old fashioned" values is now so blase that nudity in the theater or film is merely yawned at. When I first visited New York in the eighties, "Oh! Calcutta", the seventies- era musical that was billed as the longest-running musical of all time, was still being performed entirely in the nude. When the show first opened, this was a sensation, meant to provoke shock or excitement, but by that time, it was already becoming blase. Today, we are used to seeing most films and many theater pieces featuring nudity, some also depicting incest or rape. "The envelope" has to be pushed ever further to excite controversy.

This future dystopia was, ironically, predicted in Fritz Lang's 1927 film "Metropolis", which  depicted the dehumanized workers, and the inevitable ascent of machine over man that we now see. Similarly, Charlie Chaplin's 1934 film "Modern Times" deftly portrayed a man caught helplessly in the grinding gyres of industrialism, driven mad by the harsh dictates of the machine. Go to any dance club nowadays, and you will see young people, like marionettes,  furiously dancing to the mechanized, lifeless unhuman beat of a machine, sometimes accompanied by chanted lyrics. This so-called "music" is without melody, harmony or spirit; its breath is the frigid sound of the abyss. As depicted by Lang's "Maschinenmensch", the machine who broke free from her master to create destruction, our machines have truly become our masters, because we have refused to serve God and one another.

Along with this new obsessive fixation on nudity and sexuality, came the sexualization of children. Pandora's Box of "sexual liberation", once opened, couldn't so readily be closed again. America now exports tons of hard-core pornography, featuring torture, abuse, defecating and urinating on others, bestiality and child porn. The producers of such smut are paraded on TV talk shows as "businessmen", just like any other- after all, who can argue with success? California, once a land of promise to weary immigrants, is now the center of the porn racket, ensnaring millions of women, men and children, many coerced into becoming so-called "sex workers".

At the beginning of the 20th century, American Gospel music, both the "white" country gospel, and the "negro spiritual" tradition, was characterized mainly by its rhythmic and harmonic simplicity, its heartfelt, humble lyrics, and contemplative character. Indeed, the plaintive sounds of black American singing often had such a profound effect on its listeners that it could be credited, in part, with helping to end slavery and promoting the cause of civil rights. At this point, black gospel and spiritual music was noted for its innate dignity and nobility of character.

As Gospel music became more and more a commodity and a form of entertainment, it, too, started to become "Dionysian"- emphasizing emotion over substance, becoming less and less introspective or meditative. Soon, what mattered was flashy arrangements, florid vocal displays, dramatic vocal leaps and hypnotic repeated choruses. This has, in our time, become so much the norm that we hardly question it.

In a "Christian" society, secular music tends to imitate the church's standard. In previous centuries, singers and musicians, schooled by the church, could "branch off" and turn to making "light" popular music, if they wished. The highest art was always that commissioned by the churches. In a fallen society, however, the church seeks to imitate the world. Hypnotic, paganistic music is now the norm in most churches. Contemplation and introspection are considered suspect, because that would mean that one would have to think for himself. Better to appeal to the rawest emotions- pride, vainglory, envy and malice. And all the better without that pesky conscience. It's a peculiarly Nietzschean form of Christianity, one that emphasizes the self above all, and declares each and every one of us a mini-god in the making.

As the church goes, so goes the society. And as church music goes, so goes popular music. Today's singers, coached in the histrionic excesses of America Gospel, eschew deeper, spiritual singing, and strive towards expressing pure ego.

The heart of these changes was in the rejection of God as moral authority. Although much about the nature of God and religion could be argued, in previous centuries, people had always agreed on the existence of a higher moral and spiritual authority. It was taken for granted that God was a God of order, that the universe followed logical laws and that music was an expression of order and logic, not chaos. The urge towards chaos, towards what Nietzsche described as the "Dionysian" side of the Arts- that which is irrational, emotional, and chaotic- came to the arts after it had thoroughly permeated the humanities- from Darwin, Freud, Marx and others.

This new era proclaimed great ideals which contradicted each other; Darwin proclaimed that we, mere mammals without souls or spirits, are descended from apes. Nietzsche told us that we will rise to become godlike "Supermen", through our own efforts. No higher power or higher authority would be needed. Social Darwinism has been used as the basis for both Mussolini's fascism and modern neoliberal "free trade" capitalism; at its root is a fundamental denial of the sanctity of human life, reducing man to the status of animal. With any of these modern philosophies, man could freely find justification to oppress his fellow man.

Moreover, without the intrusion of a guilty conscience, man could become the "noble savage" so fondly depicted by Rousseau in the 18th century. What Rousseau couldn't forsee, however, is that man without God is perhaps savage, but seldom noble.  The senseless bloodbath of WWI, with technology being put to use to kill men in ever-more efficient ways, should have been a wake- up call to humanity, to put an end to the worship of the self, and turn to God. Unfortunately, man's pride will seldom give quarter to God's mercy.

What we have seen in this past century is that man, refusing to submit to God, claims his "freedom", and in turn becomes a slave. Science, meant to serve man and humanity, becomes a servant of death and destruction, and the master of mankind. So the misuse of aviation and chemistry in WWI begat the misuse of physics in WWII, which will beget the mis-use of computer science, biology and genetics in WWIII. We cannot expect to survive WWIII.

We are now at a point in which America's music and entertainment industries have reached a zenith of cultural babylonism. No nation escapes Babylon's spell- all submit to her writhing melodies, hypnotic drumming, cunning, profane, seducing lyrics and visions of semi-nude dancing girls.

Mammon, the god to whom all things are sacrificed, stands at the apex of cultural Babylon. As with ancient Babylon, children are the preferred sacrificial victims. Unlike the God of love and Prince of Peace of Jesus' teachings, the new god is a god who demands blood- and hence, the nonstop hedonistic bloodbath of America's popular culture, in which death and murder are forms of entertainment. The spell of Babylon is completed by its "magic": technology which can bewitch young minds, and compel them to evil, murder and torture. We see ever-greater numbers of children succumbing to suicide, depression and violence- all sacrificed to the god of Mammon.

Sir Isaac Newton's third law states: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." The moral descent is, inevitably, coupled with cries for law and order. Moral anarchy is quickly followed by tyranny, for as Jeremy Bentham states, "Tyranny and anarchy are never far apart."

As the moral anarchy rose in the aftermath of WWI, so did the people's demands for a restoration of order. Fascism soon spread in Europe and abroad- Mussolini, Hitler and the rise of fascistic communism in the east. Robert Paxton describes fascism as encompassing "a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond reach of traditional solutions" as well as "a need for authority by a natural leader above the law, relying on the superiority of his instincts". In place of a spiritual force informing the human conscience, a man is placed in the position of god. In the moral vacuum of a world without God, this leader removes the need for self-inspection and moral responsibility. In the inevitable bloodbath that follows, "We were only following orders" becomes the new mantra of the self-hypnotized masses.

Is it too late to turn the tide? So-called conservatives want to usher in a new era of Cromwellism- by enforcing morality, imposing prayer in the schools, banning "sinful" acts, and expanding America's gulag system (which currently holds 2 million prisoners). Their calls for morality by force of law are accompanied by record levels of corruption in government, law and religion.  Scandals involving pedophilia among priests, evangelist "church leaders" visiting prostitutes and "conservative" politicians soliciting sex in toilets or whorehouses are endemic of a culture that has rotted. Merely changing laws will not undo the decay that has set in. Allowing people to choose to follow their conscience, and keeping the separation between church and state is now more necessary than ever. America has never lived up to its promise of liberty and justice for all, but there has always been a force for good that had no need to be impelled by political force.

Cromwell and his Puritans proved themselves to just as intolerant of non-puritans as the oppressors they sought to replace. Repression and violence are the fruits of "moral" pseudo- Christianity, not the peace and love of Jesus' teachings. England soon tired of the dictates of Puritanism, and threw off the shackles of forced morality. Similarly, a fascist police state such as Mussolini's will not preserve, but rather, will destroy whatever vestiges of morality and Christianity America might have.  These are the very shackles of pseudo-Christianity that the right-wingers implore us to put on. Morality, however, comes from within, and forcing non-Christians to live as Christians will merely produce a generation of hypocrites.

Thus, the conservatives' cry that "liberalism" is the cause of all ills is rooted in the liberal/conservative dichotomy, a Hegelian dialectic which has been set up to divide and conquer. The twin sides of modern political evil- big government socialism and scavenger capitalism- have both served to sever man from his own humanity. Socialism renders the individual into a mere number, and capitalism turns him into a commodity. What we need is a new, humanistic libertarianism, a "middle way" that would avoid either extreme.

If America can be saved, it will be by rejecting a simplistic hedonistic philosophy of materialism, and seeking values that, while adapted to a modern age, have, at their heart, reverence for life, humanity and planet earth. A kinder, gentler America can exist, if we agree to change our hearts and minds, for the actions spring from within the will.

This, of course,  would mean being willing to change our way of life- it would mean a simpler lifestyle, with less luxury, but more meaning. It would mean embracing love and forgiveness, instead of hatred and negativity. It would mean living in harmony with nature, instead of fighting it, and it would mean placing technology below us, as our servant, instead of letting it be our master. It would mean dismantling the military-industrial complex, and renouncing any advantages we have received from it, and  replacing military supremacy with moral supremacy. The question remains: are we big enough people to do it? I pray that we are.