People just don’t talk like this anymore.

Advertisements

In A Thousand Days, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger’s magnum opus on JFK’s tragically shortened presidency, there’s an opening epigram pulled from Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

On Saturday, July 23rd, 2011, British neo-soul singer Amy Winehouse joined the society of modern-day martyrs—she was found  inexplicably dead in her London home.  She was 27 and unbreakable.  While a hauntingly beautiful vocalist, she was probably most widely known for her drug abuse.  In her Wiki, it is written that she suffered from early-onset emphysema, a slowly collapsing lung (“operating at 70 percent capacity”), and irregular heartbeat—all seemingly brought on by her addiction to crack cocaine, among other substances.  According to her father, Mitch, the singer was doing well for a while, “responding ‘fabulously’ to treatment which includes being covered with nicotine patches.”  The singer was reportedly pronounced dead at 4 pm British Standard Time.  After learning of this news by way of Yahoo! the very same day, I went to YouTube and, out of curiosity, keyed in her name in the search box.  A long selection of her music videos instantly popped up.  I randomly clicked the video dramatizing her international hit “Rehab” just to read the user comments below it.

Thebat991 wrote:

I feel bad that she’s dead but with all her issues, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. RIP Amy Winehouse.

Gabbbbriella wrote:

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

OhayYou wrote:

RIP Amy. </3 I’ve been a fan for a while now and I still am.  You should have gone of gone to rehab babe. D:

In the beginning stanza of her hit song, Winehouse sings:

They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, ‘No, no, no’

Yes, I’ve been bad but when I come back you’ll know, know, know

I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine

He’s tried to make me go to rehab, I won’t go, go, go

I’d rather be at home with Ray

I ain’t got seventy days

‘Cause there’s nothing, there’s nothing you can teach me

That I can’t learn from Mr. Hathaway.

I assume she’s referencing the hauntingly beautiful seventies soul singer Donny Hathaway (also unbreakable), who was a manic depressive and a paranoid schizophrenic and was found dead in 1979 after leaping from the 15th-floor of the Essex Hotel in New York City.  In his Wiki, it is written that Hathaway, according to his wife Eulaulah, was “less than diligent about following his prescription regimen,” leading me to assume that he may have jumped to escape the dreadful feeling of being fooled into freedom.  In the life circumstances of modern-day martyrs, there is always the element of freedom—not the lack or excess of it, but the illusion.

Retrieved from http://www.mnn.com

At the time Ralph Nader’s and John Abbots’s The Menace of Atomic Energy was published, in 1977, there were only about sixty or so operating nuclear plants in the US; soaring energy prices were fueling a rekindled ethic of conservation throughout America (in two years, there would even be solar panels on the roof of the White House); people actually lived in Pripyat, Ukraine.

Since then, the world has experienced at least two epic nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima and Chernobyl and perhaps the most unstable weather environment since the advent of agriculture. And yet, the number of power and non-power (research-oriented) nuclear reactors in the United States stands at 140 and they span the country – from fault line to flood zone.

Americans are surrounded by atomic energy. Since 1945, it’s formed our culture, influenced our politics and burdened our bodies. For instance, that we call the President of the United States the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, transforming, de facto, a civilian into someone with marshal power can, as Garry Wills has convincingly argued, be attributed to the legacy of Leo Szilard’s chain reaction.

Because nuclear power is such a complex, energy-intensive affair, it requires the centralization of resources and command, two things not very compatible with a highly diverse democratic country of 400 million opinionated people. Moreover, because of this inherent conflict between efficiency and freedom, the history of nuclear power has been mired in secrecy from the very beginning, such that issues important to the free individual have often gotten steamrolled in silence. As Nader and Abbots wrote:

Furthermore, what the courts on other occasions have called an ‘inherently hazardous instrumentality’ affects a wide array of human rights beyond the technical issues, and this is pre-eminently the case with atomic power. How vulnerable is our society to nuclear theft and sabotage, nuclear wastes, atomic proliferation and the secret, garrison-state mentality associated with the diffusion of technologies that present such awesome risks?

The nuclear establishment is not comfortable with these consumer perspectives whether they are encountered in courts, before administrative proceedings, legislative hearings or in public debates […] More than probably any previous civilian industry, the atomic industry was imposed upon the American people through a sequence of actions by government, reactor manufacturers and utility monopolies […]

A society which insists on a technology that is so vulnerable is a society which invites a destructive few to have great sway over the peaceful many.

Quite simply, when it comes to confronting perhaps our gravest threat, the average consumer-citizen is at the mercy of a maligned priesthood. This is precisely why, when reading headlines like this one at the Huffington Post

Fire And Flood Stoke Fears At U.S. Nuclear Facilities, But Officials Say Radioactive Materials Are Safe,

I can’t help but think of Winston Smith, in Orwell’s 1984, approaching his place of work and spotting the three slogans of the Party on the building’s enormous white facade:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

Retrieved from fineartamerica.com

Charles Blow, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times has written a rather intriguing column (and one among perhaps hundreds published in someone’s newspaper or blog or magazine each week) on America’s increasing impoverishment. It’s greatest asset, in my opinion: a salvaged James Baldwin quote:

Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.

Baldwin is apart of a slowly expanding cemetery of dead prophets whose relevance and clarity is revealed in inverse proportion to our national decline.

I was at Starbux yesterday having an insanely sweet discussion with a good friend of mine about the pulse of hip-hop – can you still feel it? We talked about whether or not it still had the power to capture the zeitgeist and if, perhaps, it might have been eclipsed or displaced by electronic music, with its voiceless skittishness (enough to drive me mad, which, I suppose, would be a primary characteristic of any kind of music vying to become a soundtrack for our time).

“All the artists are either in jail or in forced retirement [i.e. jail],” he said, citing Nas, DMX, Eminem and a few others he thought represented hip-hop’s subversive prime.

I on the other hand don’t get too worked up over all of the talk about the death of hip-hop. It never really spoke to me on that kind of of level, although it’s good to hear Andre 3 stacks again and I wouldn’t mind hearing something from the Eminem who could still shock and piss everybody off.

I told him that the truth about hip-hop is that it was never really as subversive as it put on. It’s really always been about money, power, parties and hoes. And at its most antagonistic, enraged point, its always been about the tragedy of being apart of a sub-culture that’s been historically denied the opportunity to pursue the money and power by conventional (read WASP-ish) means. Hip-Hop, for the most part, has always been democratic capitalism’s fiercest and truest believer, which is really the source of its cynicism and evidence that it’s ability to channel the ethos of modernity is probably stronger than ever.

This is also why its so ironic to hear, for instance, Wyclef’s subtle mock of Louis Armstrong, a veritable Uncle Tom (if he’s even known at all) to many blacks under forty. If we compare genres, jazz and hip-hop, which would you consider the greatest ‘sell-out’ success story?

There might not be another genre of music that has profited more from the economic policies of conservative Republicans and the rapid technological advancement of the late 20th-, early 21st-century (and the resulting inequitable economic arrangements they’ve left in their wakes)  than hip-hop. And there’s probably not another genre that’s as explicitly C.R.E.A.M.-ish and unashamedly commercial as hip-hop.

You really can’t applaud hip-hop’s entrepreneurship and billion-dollar ‘industrial’ status and its truth-telling power at the same time. Jazz (leaving aside its critical virtues) is a hobby by comparison. Name a jazz musician who can afford Mike Tyson’s old estate? Wyclef can afford to bank a presidential run, while Satchmo virtually worked himself to death (he lived in a relatively modest, but comfortable home in Brooklyn and may have even been neighbors with welfare recipients). Of course, my anecdotal analysis doesn’t entirely prove hip-hop’s inherent economic conservatism, but if we can examine the soul of a politician by auditing his bank account, what makes an artist and his or her aesthetic integrity any different?

Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom seems to be that rap is (or was at some point in its evolution), for whatever reason, politically and culturally subversive. Yeah, and Ronald Reagan was a liberal Democrat.

She [the girl above, Kiki Ostrenga] is an extreme case of an enormous uncontrolled experiment that is playing out across the world. Young people’s brains are developing while they are immersed in fast, multitasking technology. No one quite knows what effect this is having.

The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things that young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12. No one quite knows the effect of that either.

– David Brooks, “The Saga of Sister Kiki,” The New York Times 

Last night, while in Walgreens, a pint of sherbet, an oversized bag of tortillas and a jar of salsa in hand, heading towards the checkout, anticipating a retreat into a few randomly chosen YouTube documentaries and lots of munching (and losing myself in general inside of my laptop’s nocturnal, liquid crystal glow) – after a threateningly loud clap in the atmosphere, a bright blue light, which flickered with the finality of a burst bulb – the store went dark. Then what was before a drizzle became a seamless sheet of water. Some minutes. Breaks and horns clashed. Some minutes. Sirens broke out. And another timpanic, brief blue light came and went for good measure.

Although I was starving when I came over here, the storm had all of a sudden relinquished my appetite. I was standing confusedly in the candy aisle, looking intermittently at the halted line at the checkout, which resembled a modernist bas relief (the people would be interpreted in the museum caption as being frozen in their primal, postmodern state as consumers) and the exit. There was a group of rowdy, electrified teenagers standing at the sliding doors, transfixed by the storm’s suddenness. They were mostly black. And I remember sort of abstractly (and rather crudely) conceptualizing the implications and potentialities of this – a group of rowdy, anxious black youth in a temporarily decommissioned store powerless to police itself, reduced to a white guy (I assumed to be the manager) frantically shining a flashlight and ordering me and anyone else holding merchandise to return it to the shelves immediately.

My stomach growled with annoyance. I then gently asked the guy if it was okay for me to leave the store. He said yes, rather politely. I ran into the wall of rain, not even conscious enough to castigate myself for such a show of timidity. I simply ran, like a gazelle, without thinking. I passed a McDonalds, a gas station, a Burger King – they were all black – before crossing the bridge to my apartment. Even the traffic lights and street lamps were mere silhouettes. If it weren’t for the persevering headlights and the anticipation that things, as we know them to be – cheap pints of sherbet, solitary movie nights, suspended dystopian realities with microwavable popcorn thrown in, drive-thru pharmacies, incessantly lit streets, controlled air and heat, the comforting thought of the comfort of the so-called real – were bound to resume, I would have thought that this was it. The blackout before the plunge…

I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy. I was deprived. (Oh not deprived but rather underprivileged.) Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary.

– Jules Feiffer

Roger Cohen’s New York Times Op-Ed piece on Greece’s fiscal fiasco, published yesterday, is worthy reading if only for introducing me to a new, perhaps era-defining, term. While I’ll admit that the word doesn’t have quite the effluence or verbal flourish or catchall potential or ease of pronunciation of other words deployed in various class-wars of the past to describe the people getting fucked (see proletariat, for instance), it does have a certain ring to it, the specific qualification of which I’m not entirely certain:

I’ve never seen Europe in such dire straits. Greece is full of the aganaktismenoi, or the outraged, who resent the sharp cuts and sales of state industries made necessary because there is no drachma to devalue in order to regain competitiveness.

Like protesters in Spain, they feel the poor and unemployed are paying for the errors of politicians, the evasions of the rich, and the whole globalized system that rewards the tech-savvy initiated while punishing those left behind.

Of course, categorizing is always problematic. History seems replete with one side (the fuckers) inventing names to describe the other (the fucked), and vice versa (from bon sauvage to robber baron; from welfare queen to yuppie); but I don’t frequently come across words or terms that go past the merely nominative and attempt to describe what the nominal group is actually feeling. This would require some empathy on the part of those creating the name. With that said, I wonder which side came up with “outraged” – the fuckers, the fucked, or (here’s a party I didn’t consider) the cognoscenti.

Every once in a while I emerge out of the YouTube vortex with a few gems to ponder on and reconsider. The above clip is one of them. In it, the Washington D.C. television host Ralph Waldo ‘Petey’ Greene brilliantly deconstructs a very prominent American racial taboo – watch this and then, as supplements, read Stanley Crouch’s The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity and (if you really want to go off on the deep end) the second chapter of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology.

The late funnyman Petey Greene’s genius is that he was a funny man. To say he was merely talented wouldn’t do him justice. To call him a comic or even a comedian would be reductionist. Greene was honest and the highest compliment you can pay an honest man is to tell him how you really feel. Either be yourself or Greene, stone-cold Falstaffian fool that he was, would tease that self-in-hiding to the surface. Politics, protocol and etiquette be damned.

Today, perhaps since the 2007 release of the movie based on his life, Talk To Me, Greene may be remembered largely as the man whose live ‘breakdown’ on Johnny Carson preceded Dave Chapelle’s infamous $50 million change of heart and subsequent move to Africa and stands firmly in the tradition of brilliant, humorous black funnymen who were, alas, all too sensitive to humanity, their own and ours, to allow an audience ignorant of the joke’s complex core to co-opt their humor – to dull its subversiveness and diamond-sharp, universal truth by lavishing it with cheap laughter and even cheaper, albeit Wal-Mart-sized, rewards.