Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Big Black Scary Gun

As I sit here writing in the Hobo Dojo, I am struck by the irony of this day. Here we are in 2013. An African American president is being sworn in for a second term on the national holiday reserved to celebrate the life and work of another iconic Black American. It could be said that the one made the other possible. I am not able to forget that Dr. King was killed by a assassin's bullet. Nor am I able to escape the sound of my countrymen yelling about guns. The debate is raging non-stop on social media and the evening cable-news and opinion shows. I already wrote about Sandy Hook here on the blog-site, but I feel compelled to take another shot.

Guns are dangerous tools. Always. Even if one is never aimed at another human in hatred or anger, it possesses - by design - the ability to snuff the life from living things. Though many people own guns for target shooting or collectability and never harm a living thing ... it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that guns were designed to kill. Target shooting was only invented as practice for killing.

These days, our great country splits into factions at the drop of a hat. Most anything that upsets us all will devolve into a partisan struggle as soon as the political talkers and bloggers can get their talking-points in place. As anyone might have predicted, the recent tragic shooting in Newtown Connecticut - hard on the heels of the solid Democratic victory in November - has brought the gun debate to the fore in an unprecedented way. And, as expected, the liberals want to limit access to guns of certain types. Equally predictable is the push-back from the other side of the Great Divide.

What is somewhat surprising to me is that the voices from the left - as this is a left versus right debate - seem to again be focused on the nasty-looking military-style carbines that have come to be called 'assault weapons'. These black, utilitarian rifles are frightening to behold. They are generally modeled after the Colt AR-15 or the Russian AK-47. But, though they are based upon these tough no-nonsense infantry weapons, they are no more lethal than the hunting rifle that likely leaned against the wall in your father's closet all through your childhood. In fact, if one were to shoot them both at a target, one would see that Dad's .30-06 deer-rifle is a heck of a lot more powerful than that scary AR-15 that we see in the graphic behind the MSNBC commentator's head.

Now that is not to say that they are toys. They are killing machines. No doubt about it. All guns are. The beautiful bolt-action Remington with the oiled-walnut stock that my father gave me might look swell hung on a wall, but it was designed to tear through flesh and bone and organ, and to release the life energies of whatever creature fell before its sights. But what we have here, in this national debate about firearms, is an attempt to make some of them into the embodiment of evil intent while allowing others - every bit as deadly - to continue to be owned and collected. No particular scrutiny is being paid to hunting rifles like the one that took Reverend King from our midst.

In this piece, I'll give you my thoughts as to why.

First, let me give you my theory as to why I believe that Americans are prone to a relationship with firearms that verges on romantic love. Anyone who knows more than a few male humans has occasionally wondered at our attachment to THINGS. A friend wrote me yesterday comparing the collecting of guns to the collecting of guitars. This resonated with me. As a musician and lover of music, guitars hold a special place in my heart. If I am driving down the street and see a guy walking with a guitar case, my eyes track him as surely as if I'd spied a young woman with a particularly beguiling bottom. I just love everything about guitars. Not just for their utility either. They are connected in an almost talismanic sense to some of the most profound experiences of my life. They are beautiful examples of human craft, and a joy to play or just to look at. And importantly, they are tools with which and about which I can increase and display my expertise. This is - to the male of the species - as important as weddings and baby clothes are to the female. We like knowing things and being seen to know them.

So, though I myself do not drool at the sight of a new night-vision scope, or SWAT style tactical bipod,  I can certainly relate to the desire to have a more complete experience with whatever has captured my male imagination.

But that does not address the American love for guns. What is it about guns that seems to fire the American psyche? Well, at least in part, it has to do with what gets into your mind when you are young. When I was a kid, all the boys played Cowboys and Indians in my neighborhood. That or 'Army' where we chose up sides, assigning some to be U.S. soldiers and others to be either Nazis or Japs (pardon the slur). Sometimes, if we were in a certain mood, we might pretend to be Union soldiers fighting with Rebels. The point was that we pretended to be men risking our lives over arcane political and territorial disputes we didn't understand. There were a lot of dramatic death throes and falling on hand grenades, and we all wanted to be 'The Good Guys'. It was as central to our idea of Country as anything, this idea of men fighting on lethal teams.

When you think about it, ours is the first wholly new country to be born in gun-smoke.  The men who crouched behind trees and shot holy-hell out of British soldiers could never have prevailed if not for the weapons they had. Whatever else figured into those battles, they were won by our guys shooting more holes in their guys than theirs in ours. The rifle was the key. Unlike European countries, we have no national lore featuring tremendous battles won by valiant men swinging hammers and swords at one another while arrows rained upon them. The musket came before our country could have and was made practical just in time. This accident of history forged a link between the gun and the patriotic urge. Add to that the fact that we became a nation by revolting against those who were very much like us. People who came from similar bloodlines broke down into tyrant and insurgent, and the resultant rebel victory gave us our nation. That is a fact not easily forgotten.

And that our country has so often shouldered its rifles in defense against tyranny elsewhere in the world has only etched and re-etched the connection patriotic Americans feel to the indispensable power of the gun. We can't really imagine an America without the violent pop of a bullet or the bloody bloom at the end of its flight. But many of us can imagine a time in the future where a political or ideological rift would have us in the streets and countryside shooting at fellow citizens. Spend an hour reading the comments following any controversial online column and you might imagine it too.

We have to factor-in the birth of motion pictures. The ground was still littered with musket balls, and Buffalo Bill still trick-shooting in buckskin when Hollywood first sent its jerky reels afield. In the otherworldly darkness of movie-houses, we were enticed to imagine ourselves as the dashing, properly armed hero. Those movies got into our national soul. That's where my pals and I got the idea that war was the stuff of neighborhood sport. We saw it all on TV. And it all looked damned exiting.

Now I mean no disrespect toward those who own guns. And I know that there is a long tradition of hunting in many families. But when I see camo-clad guys stockpiling ammo and freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff in anticipation of everything from Y2K to the 'Zombie Apocalypse', I have to suspect that they may have spent a bit too much time listening to George Noory, and watching re-runs of Red Dawn and The Walking Dead. But let's face it. For certain personality-types, end-of-civilization scenarios carry a tingly fascination. The prospect of facing a world where one lives by his wiles - and his guns - rings an atavistic bell somewhere in the nether regions.

[Interestingly, at about the time that my pals and I were fighting wars with toy guns, another British Invasion was breaching our shores. It wasn't long before some of us became more interested in acting that one out with tennis-racket guitars and wash-bucket drums before crowds of excited neighborhood girls. I was in that bunch, and I've never really stopped playing that game. Why would it surprise me that others never stopped playing army.]

But I digress ...

It's easy to understand the attraction to guns, it is just as easy to grasp the revulsion they engender in others. They are, as we mentioned, dangerous. And to an awful lot of Americans the pastoral image of a father taking his son out hunting, has either been lost to time or re-purposed as evidence of anthropocentric cruelty which breaks their vegetarian hearts. The hipper you are ... The more educated you are ... The more 'enlightened' you are ... the less you seem to like blowing holes in things.

If you look at a map of the United States that is blocked out in Red and Blue to signify voting trends, you will see that the blue areas are much smaller in total mass than the red ones. This is because the people who move to the coasts and live in the big, condensed cities are largely Democrat. There's more of 'em, and less room between 'em. They stand in line a lot, and just the quest for parking can drive a sweet soul mad. The good neighborhoods grind up against bad ones, and the streets teem with every sort of miscreant. The police are outnumbered and everybody knows it. The thought that every greasy pocket might well contain a .38 snub-nose with its numbers filed off is enough to set one's knees to knocking. There are no deer to kill. The only potential prey is of the human variety. Often these people do think of arming themselves. But that generally happens - as Senator Feinstein has noted - in response to fear and mounting anxiety. If a death threat could get old Diane to pack heat, it stands to reason that a lot of gun-sales in the big metro are either between perps out of a car-trunk, or for protection against whatever those guys are cooking up in their meth-fried noodles.

Is it really any wonder that big-city folks tend not to favor lax gun laws? Except the car-trunk guys, of course. But they don't vote much. And they don't pay much attention to gun laws anyway.

Not all people who would eliminate guns live in big cities. But I think it's fair to say that most are seeking the sort of life that would not feature trips back from vacation with a couple-hundred pounds of field-dressed venison on ice in the back of the Prius. Point made?

So I get it. I get why the old-school people of the roomy red states like their guns. And I get why the folks who just want to get little Emily safely from ballet to her French lesson, would rather they were all melted down and made into vaguely sexual sculptures in Golden Gate Park. I get it. I do.

What is harder to get is why the anti-gun folks fixate repeatedly on the 'assault weapons'. Just this very morning I drove one of my dearest friends to the airport and we talked of this on the way. She is past fifty, college educated and liberal, a nationally-known figure in her field, and till this morning, did not know that a semi-automatic 'assault rifle' is not a point-and-spray machine-gun. Didn't know that fully automatic guns have been illegal - except with rare permissions - since 1934. And she's no dummy. What she is, is an urban Democrat. And just as one would hear about the encroaching socialist threat at an East-Texas barbecue,  she's been exposed to a lot of mis-information about guns. Anybody who watched Piers Morgan's weeks-long anti-gun screed on CNN saw a man who is so against these big black scary guns that he simply refused to hear when expert after expert explained to him that the AR knockoffs and the AK knockoffs are just the same as any other semi-automatic rifle; one shot per trigger-pull. Other than cosmetics, they are semi-automatics like any other.

The only valid claim as to the greater lethality of these adapted military guns is in the menacing forward-curving magazine or 'clip' which holds about 30 rounds. But a Glock 17 holds seventeen shots, and any unhinged suburban commando could easily carry a pair of them in his Desert-Storm cargo pants, with a spare clip for each and room left over for his cell phone and Ipod. You think you could shove an AR-15 down your pants? Not likely. They're almost three feet long with the stock collapsed and weigh in at over nine pounds loaded. Hell, the very pistol-grip that the president wants to outlaw would make that impossible. Oh, and changing clips on a Glock is a .05 second job. So a killer with a single Glock, a single spare clip and a single second to spare is four shots ahead of the guy who lugs in an 'assault rifle' weighing four times as much. BTW, the extended clips which give that standard Glock pistol 29 shots without a re-load, are fast-selling items in gun stores all across this great and liberal nation.

So why these particular guns? Well, if I didn't have a theory, I wouldn't be me. So here I go. I think that our hand-wringing liberal friends are feeling a little guilty. They know who it was who glamorized these weapons. They know who is was who put these nasty and utterly function-driven guns into the hands of buffed out action stars and set them to slaughtering charging brigades of bad guys while heart-pounding music burst from the surround-sound speakers. They know who it was who strapped Keanu Reeves and sent him into the Matrix to tear Mr. Smith a new one. They know who sent Rambo up-river to waste the commies holding the missionaries in jungle-jail. They chose these guns because they look Bad-Ass, and it is they who have made them so widely popular. They know goddamn well that young minds are influenced by media images. And they know who is getting rich off it. And they also know how those people vote.

They are also perfectly aware of the hundreds or thousands of hours that young males, hormonally flushed with aggression and frustration, spend blowing chunks of virtual enemies all over the virtual walls in first-person shooter video games. They also know that Silicon Valley, where these games are made, is nearly as monolithic a Democratic vote-block as is Hollyweird.

Liberal partisans are like all other partisans. Protecting their own and the validity of their philosophy is more important than truth-telling. And so it is that they pretend that a young, unformed personality cannot be much influenced by images of gun violence, but that the sight of such a gun on a parental shelf would be liable to send that same kid into a school with blood in his eyes. It's the availability of guns, they keep saying. And in particular, it's the availability of these big scary black guns.

These people aren't stupid. They read. They know that the overwhelming preponderance of children killed by guns are killed in the inner city, and that the weapons of choice are cheap, easily concealed handguns. A Bushmaster like the one that douche-bag in Newtown used is a $1,000 gun. This is not a gun for criminals. This is a gun for those acting out fantasies inspired by one or more streams of media images that feature this type of weapon. (According to FBI stats, in 2011, less than 3% of gun murders were attributable to 'assault' rifles. By contrast, handguns account for 73% of the total.).

And liberals like Piers Morgan know it. But they have a guy in the White House who is more interested in celebrity endorsements than he is in honest dialogue. Remember that he did not one thing to advance the cause of gay marriage until Crazy Joe embarrassed him on the eve of the George Clooney fundraiser. Just like that - hero of the movement! Obama is not a bad man. But he does clearly enjoy being fussed over by the A-list stars who have lent their very bodies to an industry soaked in movie-blood. They make millions. They gave him millions. They made him a star just like themselves. Do you think that he is going to sack up and call them onto the carpet? Not a chance.

Listen ... a few years ago many film makers voluntarily stopped showing stars smoking cigarettes.  It was felt that kids would emulate such a behavior and that some would be harmed by picking up the habit. I thought that was a bit silly, but I admired them for it. Where is that civic-mindedness now?

Do I think that somehow preventing kids from viewing so many violent movies and playing so many violent video games would solve the problem? No. Not entirely. There are a number of other ways that we have allowed cultural erosion to undermine our society. But we have always had fully lethal guns in American homes. And kids did not find themselves drawn to the notion of a classroom massacre ending in their own violent demise. Something has changed. And it isn't the guns ... no matter how big, and black, and scary.

Dave Morrison ... January 21, 2013

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sell Me Like Cheerios!

I subscribe to a folk-music listserv ... one of those chat-room things that show up in your email box. It used to be a rollicking place, but it's pretty quiet now. Dull really. The list is for members of FAR-West, the western regional branch of Folk Alliance, and it only perks up before and just after the annual conference. I haven't weighed in on anything since the list slowed way down. I used to get into some lively discussions and debates though. One recurring theme set myself and one other member named John - against virtually the whole rest of the community. This would happen when either John or myself mentioned 'competition'. In discussions about the conference, one of us would say something like: "We have two hundred performers competing for the attention of a couple dozen presenters and radio hosts." And the blow-back would begin. Everybody wanted everybody else to know that they never COMPETED, but instead made music in perfect cooperative fellowship with all other folkies everywhere. I remember remarking to John off-list how funny it was to watch people competing with one another for the title of 'Least Competitive'.

You see, John and I had this crazy notion that a conference wherein everybody gathers to be seen in hopes of career advancement was - in meaningful ways - a business conference. But most everybody tried to deny that one of the hallmarks of any business is the intention that somebody buy one product over another, thereby inferring a preference, and necessitating competition. That, to folk musicians, is crazy-talk. Little wonder that nearly everybody making waves in folk music is touring themselves to death trying to break even, while either losing their security or depending on somebody with a 'real' job to keep the home fires alight.

It makes people very uncomfortable to talk about such things, but then, truth-telling is never job-one where political-correctness rules the day. But none of these people owns me, so I'd like to talk about why I think that some of the most meaningful music in the world goes begging. First though, I'll offer my theory as to why this once-bustling listserv is now an electronic ghost-town. It's because a few people got sick of hearing about upcoming shows. The idea was proffered that all gig announcements (already sequestered to Fridays) ought to be cleansed form the general-discussion board, and ghettoized on a list for that purpose only. Lest it seem that we were all promoting ourselves. I spoke out vigorously against this, declaring that it was only this evidence of gigging that made the list look like a meeting-place of artists on the march to better things. I said that I'd rather put up with some clutter and be reminded that this is a performer's art and profession, than silence the hype to save some non-player a minute with the 'delete' button. Heck, I said, it's inspiring. It makes me want to get out there and compete! You can guess why I did not win the argument. And, exactly as I predicted, the list-serve virtually died.

I tell that story as an illustration of what is wrong with those who make American folk music.

Now I don't want to imply that there is no recognition of the fact that the world of folk-music is a competitive world. There are workshops available at the conventions that offer marketing advice. But this is all done in a de-fanged manner. One phrase is heard at every one of them, and is virtually the only strategy that I have ever heard offered. It is this: "It's all about relationships". The idea is that you have to develop a personal relationship with every radio host and every festival booker, and those who book every club in every city. Personal relationships. Hundreds of 'em.

I don't, for a second, doubt that the key to success in folk music is just that - personal relationships. But I will say that that is a big part of the problem. It's a shame that your success is incumbent on how many people you can stay personally connected to. On how many people you can seduce into helping your career. It makes for a lot of neglect on the home-front and insincerity everywhere else.

I go to a big folk festival in Texas when I can. I've been three times since '08. And I will tell you for certain that it is - for all intents and purposes - a closed shop. There is a definite and obvious in-crowd. The man or woman who runs it is a very sweet person, and does an amazing job. I very much like the festival. But there are - far as I can tell - three ways to get on the main-stage. The first is the universal pass-key of fame. If you are well-established, you can get booked. The next is to win the songwriting contest, which gives you a window of exposure that you had damn-well better maximize. The third way is to develop enough of a 'personal relationship' with the boss that he/she gives you a slot as a gift. How do I know that this is true? Simple. Because every year there are people on the main stage who are simply not terribly compelling, but ARE friends of the head honcho. Or honchette. As the case may be.

Now I have not been to every other festival, but I have no reason to believe that the scenario is much different anywhere else. In this piece I will try to make the case for abandoning the group-hug, circle-of-friends mentality, and trying to attract into our midst some good old-fashioned capitalists. I know who I am as an artist. I have never, and will never write a song to a formula popular at the moment. I'll write 'em like I write 'em. Period. But once I have written them, and recorded them, I want to sell as many copies of my CDs as possible. For two reasons, neither of which are noxious. The first is that, since I believe that my music is good for the soul of the listener, I would like as many souls as possible to have access to it. The second is that I would like the opportunity to do professionally, what I am good at. But marketing is not what I am good at. So what I want is for somebody who is good at marketing to grab hold of my stuff, and take it to the world. And I don't care if that person is competitive - in fact I'd prefer it. And I don't care if that person wants to get rich off my work. I'd prefer that too. As long as this person is honest, and ethical ... I want my music to be sold like a product. Because that's what it is. A musical, and lyrical product.

Folk music is like a boat with more anchor than hull. It has defeat built right into it. This is because it has deep roots in collectivism. It's true. Folk music of the guy-and-guitar variety, has always seen itself as a movement. And any good movement needs a self-definition. That - for folk music - is 'Champion of the Underdog'. A noble enough identity, as identities go. At one time folk-singers graced every union rally, decrying the greed of the bosses, and demanding a fairer distribution of the wealth. The long-suffering Civil Rights marchers had to put up with a bunch of white college-kids singing 'Negro Spirituals' they'd learned in the dorm before driving on down to D.C.. And of course, the Viet Nam war sprouted protest songs like magic-mushroom in a cow-pasture. What did all these protesters have in common? They just hated those guys in suits making money by exploiting the powerless. Such movements are best when kept simple, and simple-minded. So it was axiomatic that the collective was king, and capitalism was the root of all evil.

If that is your orientation, you are going to have a hard time making a living with music.

Woody Guthrie is still astonishingly present in American folk music. I have a good friend who has largely set aside his own fine songs to become a keeper of Woody's flame. He tours with it, and is always at the big Woody Fest each year in Oklahoma. Woody was the real deal, for sure, and I like his stuff. But he lived in another time. You could ride the rails and live on nothing back then. I don't doubt that Guthrie, had he lived, would have settled down at some point and set up a retirement plan. But in Woody's day, with the spotlight on the excesses of capitalism, there was still hope of a viable socialist alternative. He died before he grew up all the way. A good part of folk music didn't want to go on without him.

Woody's heir apparent, Bob Dylan, certainly got over all that commie stuff pretty quick. He has been a fixture of American popular music since what, '63? And I must say that he has offered very few protest songs over the last forty years or so. That's because Bob Dylan is not a hypocrite. He knows that he is able to do what he does because he is lucky enough to be profitable to the big companies that get his music out. This is no knock whatsoever on Dylan's artistic merit. In fact, I want to be very clear that I think Dylan's work has been consistently fine right along. My point is that capitalism is a friend of the arts ... even those arts that claim to hate it.

I was just re-reading some of the Neil Young biography, 'Shakey'. The reader comes away from this book knowing that if not for Elliot Roberts, we would probably have forgotten all about Neil Young with the fading of Buffalo Springfield. Roberts is a stone-cold pit-bull. And he lived to see that Young - and Joni Mitchell - got more than they deserved from every deal. In the book, Roberts admires Albert Grossman, another hard-charger, and the man called a "Colonel Parker type", by his client - Bob Dylan. Of course we all know about Elvis's flamboyant manager. And almost anybody my age knows that without Brian Epstein, the Beatles might never have gone to London, let alone taken the whole world by storm. These managers wanted to WIN, and win big. Did that diminish the artistic merit of their clients? If anything, it emboldened them to push the boundaries  When you see somebody move mountains for you, it does something for the old self-belief. And though it might be argued that some of these managers were driven mainly by love of the art and artist, they made lucrative deals because somebody in the loop had dollar signs in their eyes.

Some years ago, I argued with an L.A. folky of some stature. He is from the old school. He sings union songs to this day, as if factories where still dark, smoky dumps filled with broken men. He had just met Springsteen, and was in thrall. At the time, Broooce was making news for raising a ruckus in Pennsylvania over a closing steel mill. I tried to get my friend to see that Springsteen was rich and famous as a direct result of the very same business practices that make a steel mill lay off workers  when the mill is no longer profitable. You don't think that - even as Bruce was filling bank vaults - other lesser-selling acts were being cut from the roster? Because that is exactly what happens. In business, you go with the profit-stream. It was fine for Springsteen to condemn the steel company, but I never heard him demand that Columbia re-sign all the acts they'd dropped. He managed to be the voice of the underdog while out-earning the supposed oppressors. That's a pretty neat trick.

All of this was just before The Boss swiped Steinbeck's mojo, re-invented himself as Tom Joad and cleaned up the contemporary folk category at the Grammys. All while living in a multi-million-dollar walled estate in Beverly Hills. Sound like the collectivist dream to you?

If I sound mad at The Jersey Devil, it's only because I hate hypocrisy. If you get rich because millions of people buy your product, then God bless you. But don't try to wear Woody Guthrie's skin as camouflage.

The main mistake that folk music makes is to be at odds with its utility as musical entertainment. Because of its roots in white-guilt, it believes that it must be a humble thing. It craves the mantel of importance in a sociological sense even more than it does in an artistic sense. And it dares not even consider itself in commercial terms. But if a song is beautiful and uplifting, is it wrong to promote it, or is it wrong to fail to promote it? Marshall Mcluhan used to say that all art was the setting of traps. That every work of art was a trap set to catch somebody's attention. Attention being necessary to the delivery of the message. It may be particularly true for songs, as they are usually first heard on the fly, from a car radio or in a crowd. Nobody goes to a song museum hoping to find a neglected masterpiece. A song must be a snare as well as a nourishment.

I first heard Jackson Browne - my first greatest inspiration - while I was breading chicken at the KFC in San Gabriel, California. I will never forget it. It was 'Doctor, My Eyes', and I can feel the drums in my spine as I write this. This was no polite entreaty. This was a flag waving boldly from the open window of a speeding culture. And it was not at all political. It was not about some poor underdog, it was about ME. And in the years that followed, Browne captured the heartbreaking dance of the young and sensitive soul being pushed forth into an uncaring world. What finally blunted his artistic power? Politics. He - as liberals will - began to feel that he owed his talent to the service of a cause. He's never quite recovered. And more's the pity. I'd have been better served by his helping me to know my own heart, than by him telling me how to  vote, and who to blame.

Folk music is largely bereft of business people. There are some folk clubs, but mostly concerts happen either in listening rooms set up in churches, libraries and colleges, or at make-shift venues in peoples' homes. Presenters usually feel that it is somehow inappropriate to make money, and so they pass the proceeds directly to the artists who are mostly touring by car. The presenter is therefore not incentivized to grow that artist's fan-base in hopes of a bigger cut next time. So, unless there is a breakthrough, the artist plays to about the same number of people each go round. Often, it's the very same people. And because the few good gigs in your nearest big city are reserved for those who have had breakthroughs, the average singer-songwriter has little choice but to slog around the country trying to service those few fans he or she has gathered in previous trips.

Radio typically consists of a couple of hours early Saturday morning on a low-watt station at a community college. With any luck, your song might be played along with twenty others, and then not heard again for months if ever. The radio hosts - like the presenters - are volunteers, and are paid with community-status and the friendships they enjoy with creative people from far-off places. These are the relationships we talked about earlier. There are a few hosts who have long-standing shows in decent markets, and who could maybe get you a main-stage gig if they fell in love with you. You see them at the conventions, huddled with the better venue people. They are the only real celebrities present.

Just to use that word - 'celebrity' - in a discussion of folk music feels silly. Because at an even lower onion-layer than the white-guilt level, folk music is supposed to be the music we make for each other. It's to be played with simple instruments while sitting on back porches or wandering the countryside with no agenda beyond a bowl of porridge and a cozy hayloft. Though more pastoral, it has the same DIY sensibility that characterized the Punk movement. And like Punk, Folk had a brief commercial flowering, followed by decades of diminishing returns.  Both musics have in common a dogged distaste for elitism. Anybody can own a piece of it. If you buy a P.A. system, and rent a room, you can be an impresario. Celebrity is antithetical to the thing and therefore it's hard to valuate it. There are no clear lines of distinction between audience and performer ... which is spiritually lovely, and a great source of poverty for all.

All because of a wrongheaded belief that capitalism is somehow a bad thing. The dance goes on in every corner of the left; this awkward attempt to be fine with it when our guys get rich while condemning the very same practices on the part of those other people. I think it's a stupid way to look at the world. Capitalism is simply a vehicle for streamlining barter. We store the value of what we produce in currency which we can later trade for what we want or need. Whether it is a tank of gas, a bag of groceries, or a concert ticket.

It's likely too late for me to get any real traction in the music business. It's too bad. I could have been a contender if I'd been influenced by go-getters. But hippies got to me first. My best bet at this point is probably to bleed out a couple more albums, lose my mind while the documentary cameras roll, and die an interesting death. That is something that could be marketed. But for the youngsters attempting to come up, and thinking that Folk Alliance is the path, I suggest that you put a decent band around you, develop a show, and find somebody who is obsessively determined to manage the biggest act in the world - and believes  that act to be you. Make a million bucks. Give some away. Put some in the bank. But stay away from the the failure-pool of folk music. Unless, of course you are related to Woody Guthrie.

Dave Morrison January 15, 2013

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Leave It To America

Let's watch a little movie together. We'll set ourselves just behind the camera and give it complete freedom to pan and trolley wherever it might.

We open with a slow pan from high above an average American town - somewhere in the indistinct middle of our great nation. It's Every-Town, and the year is Recent-Past. The camera brings us down through wisps of clouds, as the town below us grows closer and more full of detail. It's evening, but not late. Cars travel the streets, turning from busy thoroughfares into snug neighborhoods shaded by ancient trees, and lit only by street-lanterns, and what light falls from porch-lights and through window-glass. Our long downward pan brings us though the rough leaf and limb of a spreading elm, where we level out and come finally to rest outside the upstairs bedroom of a modest two-story wood-frame house, as cozy as it is unremarkable.

Through the mullioned glass, and through the sheer window-drapes, we see an attractive woman in golden lamp-light. She sits on the edge of a double bed. Her head is bowed, her hands clasped at her belly. We see, throughout the room, all the artifacts of married life. Two nightstands, each with book opened spine-up. A clothes tree hung both with a man's trench-coat and a woman's wool coat with fur collar. Through the open bathroom-door, a pair of sinks lined with toiletries male and female. It's an American bedroom, sanctuary and nest for two average people. But only one of them is here, and something is wrong with her. The camera takes us through the window's barrier and the sounds of the neighborhood - cricket-song, distant traffic and a merry call to dinner somewhere close-by - are replaced by the hush of this room, and the sharp ragged inhalation of a woman. We describe a slow arc which brings us close to the front of her. Her left hand is clenched on a wad of dampened tissue and held tightly by her right. And we see that these hands jump with the small, tight convulsions that wrack her body. The picture fades to black and we are left with a single wet sob.

Our picture returns and we find that we are sailing along Pine Street, the row of neat homes ticking rapidly past our eyes. We turn a corner and another and we are on Main Street, or slightly above it. Cars move just below us, as we pass a grocer, and a hardware store, and a shoe-repair. A man is walking briskly. We fall in behind him on the sidewalk. He is a tall, wiry man and walks with a petulant swagger. We follow him as he pushes through the padded door of a neighborhood saloon and strides past a row of men hunched over amber drinks and glasses of beer. His eyes - and therefore ours - focus on a well-dressed man, alone at the end of the bar. "There he is!" we hear a voice say, "What's wrong, Ward? June toss you out of the house?"

We move to a spot back behind the bar amid the rows of bottles and watch as the man we came in with slides onto the stool next to his target. "Hey Haskell", the well-dressed man - Ward - says wearily without looking up from his glass. He is not excited to see his neighbor, but is a polite man by habit. "We're having a few ups and downs ... that's all. Everybody argues."

"No shit, Sherlock." says George Haskell, as he waves for a beer. "The question is, who wins? You let the old ball-and-chain go one-up on you, and next thing you know she's calling the shots and you're wearing an apron wondering where your balls got off to."

"It's not like that", Ward says. "Women are complicated. I don't understand why she gets so emotional about everything. It's as if she is personally offended that the world is not a perfect place. She has to change everything ... improve everything ... improve ME, for God's sake. I tell you, George ... I'm at my wit's end."

"Your mistake is to even listen to her, Ward, old buddy. I get home tonight, and Agnes starts yapping about some teacher at school who's pissed off at Eddie. She wants me to spend time with the kid, listen to his troubles. I told her that the kid doesn't have any troubles other than the over-sensitive hens that all men put up with twenty-four-seven. I told her to tell the teacher where to stick it, and that I'd be down at the bar where a man can get a little peace." George takes a long pull on his beer and looks around, satisfied that he's given his friend the only advice he'll ever need.

Now George sees two young women coming through the front door. "Man-up, Cleaver. Tell her it's your way or the highway." He spins off the stool and heads for the new arrivals. "Hello ladies," we hear him say. "Is there a fashion-model convention nearby?"

Ward Cleaver's face is a mask of shifting emotions. Frustration, tenderness, anger, and hopefulness all vie for control as a thousand memories run though his mind. He brings the highball glass to his lips as his brows knit into a tight and bitter resolve. And the camera blurs to gauzy indistinction.

We return to focus back in the house on Pine Street. June Cleaver holds a phone tightly to her ear. She has stopped crying. She is pacing in the butter-yellow kitchen averting her gaze from the unwashed dishes which she has allowed to accumulate in hopes that Ward might see fit to lift a finger for once. "He's so set in his ways, Agnes," she says. "He comes home, eats dinner, smokes his pipe, and disappears into his study. When I tell him what I'm upset about, he gives me some old-fashioned advice, like I'm a child. He has a solution for everything. As if all the world's problems can be solved by two or three tried-and-true methods."

"Men are pigs." The voice from the phone is tinny and small, but the contempt it carries is unmistakable. "I gave up on George years ago, Juney, and that son of his is not much better. You ask me, every problem we have comes either from men, or from women who listen to men. Who mops up after they ruin everything with their cave-man nonsense? Women like us, that's who. They're pigs. And that is unfair to actual pigs."

"Ward means well. He's always been a good father and provider, but Wally and the Beaver are older now, and the world is a more complicated place. It's not enough to ground the boys when they mess up and make sure they do their chores and schoolwork. He just doesn't see how much different things are than when he was a boy. I sometimes think I could run this family better without him, Agnes. Is it wrong to think that?"

"Only if it's wrong to come to your senses! I'm gonna tell you a little secret, June." The disembodied voice pauses for effect. "Mr. George Haskell is just about to find himself living in a rooming-house wondering what hit him, and how he's going to keep ahead of all the child-support payments."

"You can't be serious, Agnes!"

"Serious as a heart-attack, Honey. And you ought to think about it too. We need men like we need holes in our heads. Tell him it's your way or the highway. That oughta get his attention."

June Cleaver sets the phone back into its cradle on the kitchen wall, and stands looking at it for a long moment. Then our camera's lens follows her eyes to the uncharacteristically cluttered table, and the telephone directory resting open there. Its yellow pages are open to Attorneys, and one ad in particular is circled in red ink. Tooth, Nail, and Claw ... Divorce and Family Lawyers.

I'll fade us to black here. I could take this metaphor through the Cleavers' divorce. Through all the blame and recrimination ahead of them. I could show how - once divided - they turn their once-peaceful lives into a series of skirmishes unfit for civilized war. And we could eavesdrop further as the Haskells and others encourage both to unbending positions, convincing them that compromise is for wimps and sell-outs.

And I could take you into the interiors of each, as each struggles with the challenges of life, and as each watches his and her life fall consistently short of what it had once been.

But instead, I will leave the camera behind, and tell you why I have taken your time in an imagining of Ward and June's foundering marriage. It is my belief that we Americans have split up a perfectly good family, condemning ourselves as we did so, to never-ending divorce proceedings. For no good reason.

As you may have guessed, Ward Cleaver has been drafted into service as the representative of all Conservatives everywhere. And June has been conjured to embody all Liberals. His is the solid if unimaginative provider. Hers is the nurturing mother who identifies with her boys and their bafflement at the changing society they face. He hews closely to the time-tested, assuming that what has worked will continue to work as long as people are as people have been. She feels that - as the territory changes - not only new maps, but new notions of travel, are needed. He errs on the side of discipline, she on the side of sympathy.

Both, of course are right. And both are wrong in thinking that they alone are right.

The two dominant ideologies of modern American life - Conservatism and Liberalism - are essentially Male and Female energies, respectively. Now, I know that any attempt on my part to imply that there is such a thing as either male or female nature will cause some to bridle. I doubt that many of those will read past this point. Of course I know that there is a lot of cross-over between the typical thoughts of men and the typical thoughts of women. But, as demonstrated by thousands of products and their advertising ... some things are Guy things, and some things are Girl things. Still with me? Good.

It is one of the great travesties of our time that the notion of men and women being more-or-less interchangeable has gotten any traction whatsoever. But such a thing has happened. That evolution - or God - would go to the trouble of creating a species that can only replicate itself with the participation of both a female and a male, so physically distinct from each other, but would imbue them with identical psyches ... is among the most ridiculous ideas ever hatched by the human mind. Nobody ought to spend one second of his or her life being misled by that patently dopey claim, no matter how well-educated the claimant.  It's nonsense, and will be for as long as it is repeated.

Men Are Different From Women. Women are different from men. And because this is true, the philosophies which most readily attract each are bound to be different. Women, equipped as they are to bear children, naturally tend toward the nurturing ... the sentimental, the empathetic. And when these emotional leanings are not being applied to children, they are aimed outward toward society at large. Of course, the party which posits itself as the compassionate one generally finds greater purchase in the minds of women.

A man, on the other hand, lacks the ability to bear children. He won't be asked as often to care for the helpless child. And so nature has wisely given him other talents. He is quicker to aggress, more interested in property, less likely to give what is not earned. He is not charged with delighting in the tiny bits of progress a toddler makes, but is responsible to monitor unseen forces which might cost that toddler - and its doting mother - their safety. In simple terms, Mommy makes the nest cozy, and Daddy watches the perimeter for danger.

Conservatives embody MALE thinking. And Liberals embody FEMALE thinking. Does this mean that I think all males are conservative and all females liberal? Of course not. But I do think that women who are strongly conservative are expressing the male side of their nature, while those men who identify as strongly liberal are firmly in touch with their feminine sides. I doubt that either would disagree, or find this insulting.

I could go on at some length explaining why many women grow up to be conservatives, while many men grow up to be liberals, and I will on another occasion. But I can't spend the digital ink here. Suffice it to say that in each case, they are battling their natures because they have been convinced that they ought to.

In the case of the conservative woman, she has learned through living, that life requires discipline and toughness.  She has realized that saying no to a child is often a greater kindness - long term - than saying yes. And that this truth has wider implications. She has come to understand that an emotional response is not always the path to wisdom. It's no accident that - among women - those voting Republican are overwhelmingly married with children.

In the case of the liberal man, he has learned - usually in college - of the damage that unchecked male energy has wreaked upon this world throughout history. Slavery, war, colonialism, predatory capitalism ... all are the legacies of aggressive 'maleness' running off the leash. Additionally, the educated male suffers social sanction whenever he is caught being 'macho', as that is considered unenlightened. He soon learns to wear the cloak of the empath, and to keep his dial turned to the 'equality' setting.

Fill out each side with the large number who simply adopt the politics of their parents or peers and never give it much thought. These then are the armies amassed at each end of the battlefield.

The country is split, roughly, into these two camps. Interestingly, the percentage of Americans in each major party favors the Democrats by about six points. Women outnumber men by about three percent. Gradually, because liberals now control the arts and media, as well as the schools, Democrats have gained the upper hand. But it is still close to an even split. And this is a good thing. Because - in spite of the unbending determination of each side's most fervent members to vanquish the other - neither philosophy is fit to lead this country into a safe and sustainable future.

Am I saying that both philosophies ought to be abandoned in favor of something foreign to both? No. I am saying that each side is better when balanced by the other. It's not either. It's not neither. It's both.

What I am saying is that Ward and June ought to call off the divorce, tell the Haskells where they can stuff it,  and learn to appreciate one another. At one time the Cleavers knew - as did Americans - that the mission of our country is well-served by the fact of our two-party system and a governmental structure which allows them to balance one another out. It's only when we forget that the balance is what we want, and fight for a lopsided scale ... that we get into real trouble.

So ... in the scenario I am pitching, where June plays the Democrats and Ward the Republicans, who am I positing as the kibitzing Haskells? Why the Haskells are, of course, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, Ed Schultz, MoveOn.org, Breitbart.com, Mother Jones, National Review, and any other media outlet or personality which or who filters the news to be sure their audience receives a version slanted to confirm a bias.

Those of us who remember Leave it to Beaver, will remember how 'The Beav' was always trying to get away with something. Usually, in his immaturity, he acted impulsively, whether making a face for the school picture or sneaking a friend into the movie theater. He wasn't a bad kid, but he usually acted first according to his own agenda, and learned his lessons the hard way. Beaver is the American public. June tries to understand, and to correct his behavior with kind advice. But now and then, she is simply unequipped to deal with her son's endless high jinks. At these moments, she is very grateful that soon, her partner - a more ready authority figure - will be coming up the walk in his pressed suit and polished shoes. When her sons are more than she can handle, she simply says, "Wait till your father gets home!"

Our family is in trouble. We have spoiled the children, and charge-carded ourselves into perilous debt. But we have also allowed the powerful to call the shots and been too quick to send armies off to do the undo-able. A lot of bad decisions have been made. And mostly it is because those with one or another natural bent have been unwilling to ask for or accept the leavening influence of those with opposite leanings. We have forgotten - just as Ward and June have - that the best relationships are not made from two identical personalities, but from two complimentary personalities. The impulses of the one ought to be balanced by those of the other.

Is it too late? Have we become so addicted to the adrenalin-rush of political combat that we will never learn to moderate our anger and listen to the other side? Have we allowed party-identification to become so key to our self images that we would rather see it all go down in flames than to credit the opposition with a good idea? Is winning so important to us that we are willing to trash the joint, and let our children pay for the damages? Can we turn it around?

I think that we can. But we must do as the marriage counselors suggest. Let me offer a five-point plan as a starting place.

1. Communicate:
If we are to work together we all must speak honestly and listen without preconceptions. Rather than assuming that your political opponent is stupid or evil, read his side's clearest thinkers. You may not be persuaded, but at least you will know that there is thought and good intentions behind ideas that don't attract you.

2. Spend Time Together:
Just as a couple will grow distant without shared adventures and pleasures, so will the two sides of the political aisle. Don't select your friends only for agreement. Invite people to the barbecue whose bumper-stickers read differently than your own. It's hard to vilify somebody with whom you have just shared a meal or had a pleasant conversation.

3. Give Credit Where It's Due:
You wouldn't deny your spouse or a good friend credit for a job well done or a great idea. Why would we deny that to those who vote differently? Will withholding praise make them more or less willing to give something back? Would it kill us to say, "Hey, good job pushing for cleaner air." ... or "I guess you were right about Communism."?

4. Embrace Compromise:
Remember that we are all in this together. That we share a country and that ultimately we succeed or fail together. We're a team ... even when we deny the contributions of our team-mates. We will never, ever get everything we want. Neither will our opponents. It's SUPPOSED to be that way. Let us only engage in debate with the knowledge that we are on the way to a compromise. The victory is not in making the other side feel defeated, but in making both sides feel served.

5. Be Grateful:
We Americans live in a great country. The United States has been a tremendous force for good in the world. To be an American is the fondest hope of millions of people all over the world. Let's not take that for granted. And let's not allow ourselves to believe that it is only people who think like us who have made it so. That's not even possible. What we are, at our best, is a blend of the best impulses of us all. And I believe that much of what we've done wrong could have been done better if we'd been less willing to find fault with each other. Let us never forget the debt we owe to our fellow Americans.

Is this a perfect marriage? Not even close. Was it ever a perfect marriage? Not by a long-shot. But there have been moments when we put our squabbles aside and our shoulders together and behaved like the adults we are supposed to be. Let's not let the Beaver down. Let's tear up the divorce papers and give it another shot.

Dave Morrison ... January 2, 2013

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Wisdom Gap

This is a piece I wrote in Mid-March, 2012. I had just called off a romance, facing the fact that I would never fit into her world. In a two-day period, I wrote my song, 'St. Patrick's Day' ... and this small essay. I opted not to post it ... and the blog soon fell silent for many months. Here it is.

Well ... it turns out that there was still a little bit of winter stuck in the chute. It rained here in Thousand Oaks today. And there was thunder and lightning and cold blustery winds as well. I have the lap-top actually sitting in my lap just for the warmth of it on the tops of my thighs. Yes ... it's come to that.

I've been a little bit off-radar lately. Work has begun to come in, and I've spent some nice uncomplicated hours just trading calories of muscle-energy for the value stored in money. I've spent enough time wrestling ideas of late, to appreciate that simple exchange. Also, the romance that had inspired me for a while has deflated; like a bright balloon snared on a radio tower, proving again that unlikely flights are fragile. The people remain, and remain friends, but reality - like gravity - won't be gladly denied. Too many interests and commitments pulling in opposite directions. We're not in charge here. That which calls us forward is.

But it's good. It's proper. And, as is always promised when disappointment leans from the shadows to slap me awake, a fine and truthful new song is here. Well truthful to be sure.

I haven't been writing much. I haven't been rewarded when I do. The reason for that is this: as I think deeper and deeper below the surface, I find that less and less of what I used to believe rings true to me. And that has been a problem for my friends. I think though, that it ought not to be. You might think that growing older should automatically produce a change in thinking, and that that result would then be accepted as the wisdom of experience. But something went wrong with my generation. We somehow locked our minds onto the strange notion that wisdom flows not downward from the experienced, but upward from the pure of heart. We have dislodged respect from those who have won knowledge the hard way, and bestowed it upon the untarnished soul. The child. The creature who knows nothing of the world beyond it's own emotional responses.

It's a leap of imagination, this idea that youth knows all it needs to know when it blooms into this harsh world. And that we all must become as children ourselves, lest we become 'set in our ways'. I think it is a youth-centeredness that occurs rarely in history, but is here now. Always, I suppose, youth has been valued for the strength and beauty it gives so fleetingly. That is lovely and ought never to change. Wisdom, though, was a decent consolation prize, to be shrugged into like an old coat as youth's sun-struck beauty faded out. Knowing what is really going on. A sharp understanding of people and their motivations. This was what we had when we no longer had young bodies and bright eyes.

But a mass abdication is underway - has been underway for a long time. We are now embarrassed to grow old. I don't mean physically; we try to prolong our youth, but even we know that the fix is in and the physical decline inevitable. What I mean is that we are ashamed to grow older in what we know. We want to remain - in our thinking - the people we once were. We want the beliefs that inspired us when we had not much experience ... to inspire us still. We demand it. It sets up an odd juxtaposition.

On the one hand we act as if change is life's ultimate sacrament. It was, remember, Mr. Obama's flower to the world. We'll change, he promised. Change will be our legacy  It's all about change. Yet, when somebody is observed to change his mind - unless he changes it into alignment with ours - he is seen only to have been corrupted. And I have been the object of much frustration from friends who cannot figure out how to keep caring about me when I agree with a group they have all agreed to hate.

Once, years ago, I was in the living room of friends in Hollywood. Everybody there was a musician or an artist of one or another stripe. The conversation turned to public funding for the arts. It was axiomatic with this group that the government ought to be pumping money into the artistic community with great gusto. I'd already been an artist long enough to know that being subsidized for the doing of art, does not necessarily produce good art.  I said something like: "I don't know why taxpayers ought to be on the hook for whatever somebody decides to call art. Seems to me that if what we make is valuable, somebody will pay us for it." A hush fell over the room. Our hostess looked at me with eyes narrowed and said, "You're getting ..." and she stopped. 

"I'm getting what?" I asked back, "conservative?" 

"No" she said, "Old." I might have been thirty-eight. But 'old' and 'conservative' were co-equal insults for this staunchly liberal woman. I still know her, and I doubt that she'd still use those words interchangeably, but I don't doubt that even now she scans the inside of her head for any stray thought that might be deemed 'conservative' and quickly destroys it like a note burned in an ashtray.

If people, as they grow older, hold rigidly to ideas they held in college, then the natural system of knowledge being accumulated and passed down is derailed. This makes for a sort of Wisdom Gap. Where will those in college now look for a deeper take on callow principals if their elders refuse to modify their thinking as time goes by? One cannot entirely rely on professors as sources of wisdom. They move from one protected environment to another, school after school, until finally achieving the ultimate protection - tenure. What challenge would they face that might cause a change in thinking? Not much, I'd say, considering that in most colleges there is eighty to ninety percent consensus in political thought. Often even more.

A few more minutes with my long-ago hostess. Her husband is a fine artist and a friend of mine. I love him dearly. But he is the sort that I have always feared in conversation. The type of liberal who holds his beliefs with none of the self-doubt that I have always figured ought to accompany ALL beliefs. He is equally sure of his contempt for opposing views. I'll listen intently to the conflicted theologian, or the scientist who admits to a few problems with his key theory. I'll take more seriously a woman whose love for me is conditional. I suppose that I have always acknowledged the transitory nature of beliefs, as I have understood them to be ideas - or bundles of ideas - that groups of people have adopted as a sort of what-we-know-so-far thing. The world is flat? Fine. But wait ... the shadow of the earth upon the moon is clearly round. So ... we were wrong about the flat earth. Okay. Makes sense to me. Scratch the old idea, and get used to the new one.

But what happens when ideas that we love for their counter-culture, anti-establishment modernism are tested and found lacking in significant ways? Does an idea have to be old to be wrong?

My friends refuse to jettison beliefs even when they are shown not to work. Instead they insist that any such failure is really sabotage from the right-wing. Ideas born in the theories of academics, that have never worked in application, are still held as truths. 

My wife and I had kids a bit before they did. But both couples were raising children around the same time, and often I would see them with theirs in tow. Politically they believed that the rich ought to provide for the poor through state agency, workers were good and bosses bad, and that the underprivileged (particularly minorities) were not to have much asked of them. But as parents, they had their children doing chores, going to religious school, accepting accountability for their mistakes, and working hard to carry their own weight. In short, these two ultra-liberals were raising their kids in an old-school manner, completely consonant with conservative values. They understood instinctively that coddling their own offspring would ultimately hurt them. Yet they never missed an opportunity to bestow victim status upon any group that organizes around a perceived slight. Provided - of course - that those accused of the slight were white Americans with money and or traditional values.

What happened to me, was that - instead of burning to change every last tradition on planet earth - I changed how I felt about a lot of the traditions and rules that I had thought needed to be changed. "Oh, that works better than this? Okay." 

This is not to say that I accept blindly these days all of what my parents believed. All beliefs, far as I can tell, are subject to adjustment as time goes by. But I am now 'Old' enough to understand that much of what we have pejoratively called 'conservative' thinking is really pragmatic thinking. What works? That is the basic question. And further, because we are a pluralistic democracy, what works for the greatest number of people? After I have looked at a problem, and seen it in its historical context, and watched versions of it solved or not in my own experience ... I claim the right to act upon it - or support those who will - regardless of how such actions might be labeled by those who make a living off political debate.

If a change to how we live as Americans will serve the greatest number of people ... terrific, show me how I can help. But if the way we have been doing it serves the greater number, I won't carry a placard just to prove that I am not growing old. And I will gladly step back if I find myself standing on nothing, So, to my liberal friends who are disappointed in me, I offer no apologies. I hope we'll still be friends, but you guys are gonna have to work that out on you own.

Dave Morrison, Mid-March, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's Not A Hardware Problem (on Sandy Hook)

Well here we are, the Monday after the tragic child-murders in Newtown Connecticut. The nation has been twisted into a turmoil unparalleled since the 9/11 attacks. In a way this feels even worse.  That the victims were mostly children tears at the heart in a way no other killing can. That they were massacred in the season that we set aside for particular expressions of kindness and love - especially toward children - adds a confounding layer to our grief. And that this act of evil was not perpetrated by fanatics with beliefs and traditions different than ours, but by one of our own, makes it particularly terrifying. Because we know it will happen again. And that we will not see it coming. So now, as the shocked silence gives way to angry rhetoric, I thought that I would add my voice.

I won't emote further about the incident itself. That has been done much and much-better by others. But I would like to offer my insights as to what might be the underlying causes for this lengthening string of mass murders, and what - if anything - might be done to prevent those that wait just beyond the horizon of time. The arguments this time are much the same as they've been in times past. They break down into four basic conversations, and are as follows.

1. We need more gun control.

2. We need to re-introduce moral training into our schools.

3. We need to increase school security.

4. We need to better care for the mentally ill.

The first position is the one that usually hits the airwaves first. This is the go-to for all the usual suspects on the left side of the politi-cultural spectrum. The argument is made that nobody needs guns other than ones specifically meant for game-hunting, and that if we gradually eliminate assault-weapons and even hand-guns, there will eventually be much fewer of them in homes across the country. And that when one of these angry youngsters snaps, there will likely be no light, easily concealable weapon handy. This anti-gun call to action invariably brings quick response from those who distrust big government, doubt its ability to protect us, and suspect that it might itself become that from which we need protecting. This is the argument from the 2nd Amendment. Both sides of this debate have been honed to a fine edge, and neither will vanquish the other any time soon. I see value in both positions, and problems with each.

The second conversation has to do with what we are teaching our kids. The shooters in these school and theater attacks are young people. In this debate, we hear voices from the Right calling out for 'God' to return to our schools. They point out that without the moral imperatives traditionally provided by the belief in an all-seeing God, a human will sometimes not develop a conscience. And that when twisted by stress, bullying, rejection, or failed parenting, a young person can easily slide into dark obsession centered on punishing the world which has hurt him. Without 'God', it is argued, what prevents the youngster from acting upon these urges?  The counter-arguments come mainly from the Left, and usually involve statistics showing that gun-violence is markedly less prevalent in the most secular countries. As a grace note, it will often be remarked that religion did little to halt the inquisition or the trajectories of four hi-jacked airliners eleven years ago. Again ... a debate that has produced more seasoned debaters than solutions.

We've been adding security measures to schools for a long time. Many campuses that were once wide open are now fully fenced, with entrants funneled through a metal detector. Zero-tolerance laws regarding weapons on campus are not new. Attack-drills are joining fire-drills on the list of prudent precautions. Sandy Hook Elementary had all of these measures in place to little avail. What do we do? Keep layering on the security until schools resemble medium-security prisons with razor-wire encircling the ball-fields and snipers watching from guard towers? Or do we have one faculty member or several who carry handguns and are trained to use them? These are unattractive ideas for all of us ... yet we fear that without them we leave kids vulnerable. 

The discussion about mental illness is not specific to school shootings, but rears its head every time one of these attacks sends us searching for something, ANYTHING that might prevent the next one. It's seldom entirely clear that these shooters are actually mentally ill. The Tucson and Georgia Tech gunmen seem to be the clearest examples of an identifiable break with reality. The Aurora shooter and those at Columbine are harder to peg as sick in the traditional sense. The jury is out, of course, on the most recent killer. This is a tough nut to crack. Schizophrenia often waits to appear until early adulthood. Who wants to admit that his or her beloved child is coming unraveled? And at a time in life when many kids pass through dark periods to emerge as normal, can any of us be sure we would spot the onset of serious mental illness in a child we love?

So these are the ideas that most often get kicked around in the aftermath of one of these tragic attacks. I want to come at it from another angle. I'll make my case and then draw from all of the above in my suggestions for preventive action.

Those who know me well know that I am a staunch proponent of evolution. As far as I am concerned, we are Homo Sapiens. We are a particularly intelligent species of primate. This is - for me - beyond the point where it can be denied. And though I have great respect for my religious friends, and am perfectly willing to have them set God as the designer of evolution ... I always refer back to my knowledge of human origins much in the way they refer to scripture. 

As far as we know, we are the most intellectually advanced species that has ever lived on planet Earth. No other species can do what I am doing right now, or would even be able to imagine wanting to do it. That you can read this for its meaning is akin to a miracle. And it may be one. But our fantastic abilities do not come unalloyed. Our massive cerebral cortex - where all the goodies are born - is built upon an older, more primitive mammalian brain. And beneath that, closely linked to our central nervous system, an even older 'lizard' brain. And these old brains are still influencing us. It's a little bit like putting a Ferrari engine into an old Studebaker pickup truck. The marvels of the new engine are seriously limited by the capabilities of the chassis that supports it.

So when I see an aberrant behavior such as the shootings in Connecticut, and as I watch a nation grope for understanding, I ask myself different questions than others might. When many ask plaintively, "How could this happen?", it's a rhetorical question. They don't really expect an answer. They don't believe that an answer is possible. So they reach for explanations outside the confines of the human being who produced the act. It must be evil itself, they say, a power outside of us that roams the world looking for outlet. Or it's the guns themselves. If we could eliminate guns, we would eliminate the urge to shoot. Could it be that he 'snapped', and from that came an impulse foreign to the rest of us? Or if it's a form of mental sickness might we effectively treat or quarantine those similarly stricken? Aren't people basically good? And if so, what can cause such a terrible act?

First I want to disabuse you of that one assumption, if in fact you assume it. People are NOT basically good. Nor are they basically bad. People are - like all organisms - driven by the need to survive. And having accomplished that, the organism wants to replicate itself. All of the wonderful things we modern humans do are grafted onto the ancient drives - a pre-existing condition, if you will -  and therefore our sophisticated modern selves are forever embarrassed by the primitives in the baesment.

More 'enlightened' goals are suggested and promoted through culture. This is the primary role of religion and the arts. And the preference for religion-based morality co-exists nicely with the conservative's desire for less government, whereas the Left believes moral accountability is best done through law and policy. Whatever the truth, be certain that humans are not automatically moral, though empathy and compassion are also part of the survival package stowed away in our genes. We have goodness in us as potential. But it must be nurtured and strengthened. Particularly in men.

All of these shooters are male, and all are young. It is my belief that the whole of every moral system ever devised is primarily designed for the control of one sub-set of humans: the young male. Mostly it is young males who commit acts of violence. Sure there are some instances where females kill or older people kill, but by shear numbers, it is overwhelmingly young males who commit murder. If you asked me what drives them to it, I'd have to say this: 


You're thinking that I've lost my train of thought. You're thinking that I have brought you this far only to deliver an anti-climax worthy of a 'Ghost-Hunters' TV episode, or an Evil Knevel canyon-jump. But stay with me. Think for a second about why - apart from immediate need - men do anything. They want money or power or a beautiful woman or more land or an Olympic medal or to write a symphony or cure a disease, because the getting of it or doing of it is something others have failed at. The tribal urge within us bids us to best one another. That's how the organism survives and manages to reproduce. It wins at one contest or another. And the only thing that grants it a bit of peace is to be given some acknowledgment of having won.

The Alpha wins the fight, and then is mostly free of the fighting. He only has to defend once in a while. His position is semi-permanent. And that is called status.

If you look past the gilded surfaces and the self-congratulatory explanations, all male human behavior is driven by the need for status. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. A man might be driven to do tremendous good if he has become focused on others who have done good. If Gandhi is his hero, he will try to out-Gandhi Gandhi. He will work tirelessly to be as humble as the most humble. Status isn't tied to any one type of accomplishment, but it is tied to accomplishment of some type. 

And there is this too: because our atavistic instincts evolved in small groups with limited resources, status is perceived as a zero-sum game. It's not enough, in other words, to succeed - it's also necessary that my counterpart fail. If anybody thinks that being smart and educated relieves one of the need to conquer, I ask you to visit my Facebook Timeline and read some of the threads. 

Has anybody else noticed that these school shooters are not athletes? Are there any mass killers who excelled at sports? I doubt it. Because team-sports exist to channel this need for status-seeking conquest among young males into an acceptable behavior. It's here one can learn that through cooperation all members of a group can win. Of course that can only be done by defeating another team, but that's the other guys' problem. Besides, losing together teaches its own lessons.

These shooters are not successful in the social pressure-cooker of high school or college. They are the guys who would historically have been the nerds, accepting their low status as a fact of miserable life. And then, having passed through adolescence and young adulthood, would wake to find that much of what cost them socially in school serves them in later life. And since the geeks were generally meek, it was not such a concern to give them a status-boost akin to a football player's letter. They wouldn't do much damage if denied. 

Kids running in gangs are just the dark version of a sports team. Young males taking territory by force from other young males (or defending it) is exactly the thing to which the analogous rules of football refer. If you think about it, you'll see how the game of Chess is just football for weaklings. It's all about using what you have to defeat an opponent and seize some status.

So what of young people today? Society has made a great effort to deny the inherent differences between boys and girls. It is the prevailing belief among the academic elite that men and women are more-or-less interchangeable. Many young men now have no male role-model close at hand, and societal rights-of-passage are considered passe. (interestingly not among Jews who are vastly under-represented in prisons). So how does a boy who feels an inner rage to compete and win - but is not athletic - ease into a comfortable manhood? Well often they simply do not. Many turn to video games. And there - in the world made by nerds for nerds - they compete in first-person shooter games. These are the games where the action is viewed from behind the eyes of the guy doing all the killing. And the killing is bloody and realistic and the win is linked to body-count. Some young guys play these games for hours every night. How can this possibly have no effect? If people are not influenced by what they take in, then what the hell is advertising all about? Of course we are affected by what we see ... but much more so by what we do. I'm willing to bet that before the Columbine killers donned their gear and went a-murdering, each had 'virtually' killed many thousands.

Of course it is true that most young people who play these games never commit mass murder. Of course. But is it not time to ask ourselves what the net gain is to society that thousands of young men spend their spare time practicing murder simulations in the same way that a pilot might work at a flight simulator? If the pilot can become accustomed to landing a plane thusly, why would a young man not become more ready for an actual killing spree?

But how does this relate to the seeking of status? Well, monkey see, monkey do. These murderers are covered by the media for months, and never go away entirely. Do you remember the names of the Columbine victims? Even one? But though I am purposely not mentioning the shooters' names, you know them. You also know of their struggles and successes. You may have read their writings, or seen videos of them. They are - for want of a better word - celebrities. And in our world, celebrity is status. So a boy who feels weak and powerless, and soothes that with violent wish-fulfillment games, knows one sure-fire way to knock us all to our knees.

Many people are now calling for much greater restrictions on firearms. Some - like a friend of mine - are demanding the confiscation and destruction of all guns. These people are not concerned with the rights of law-abiding adults. They are understandably terrified at the thought of more children being slaughtered to give some twisted jerk a win. 

I have another idea. I think that we ought to outlaw first-person shooter video games for people under the age of 21. Is this an abridgment of rights? Damn straight. But as a society we have long believed that we are duty-bound to inhibit the behaviors of young people. Could it be done? It would be difficult. Perhaps there is a way that a small scanner could be sold by game manufacturers, and unless a player could produce a valid ID, the game would not operate. Let the free market address the problem. They'll find a way.

Next, I think that we ought to make sure that every boy has contact with male teachers in school, and that the subject of male human nature be discussed in all-male settings with honesty and a disregard for political-correctness. Boys need male role models who will be frank with them about what it is they are feeling. There are men's groups all over the country of the 'Iron John' variety. I'm sure that many of these men would volunteer to speak candidly in high schools. 

Bring back the chess club. Bring back the debate club. Let the scrawny kids get their mojo workin'. Again ... this is not a girls issue. Boys are slipping badly in many areas of society. Let's drop the unisex B.S. and let boys be boys. 

In the meantime, I would put one well-trained faculty member into every school, who is permitted and required to carry a lethal weapon. The police and the NRA would be happy to train such people. The identity of this person would be a secret, like the air-marshals. I think it would be prudent, and would pose no danger to students.

We must take another look at dealing with mental-illness. Would it be too much to have screenings in the same way that students are checked for disease? It would surely be largely ineffective, but even if we never know it, we might save lives and head off some non-violent mental illness as well.

Next, I believe that gun restrictions must be consistent from state to state. Dealers require background-checks and register every gun purchase. That's appropriate. And I think that a gun-safety exam ought to be given and trigger locks required for every gun kept in a home. All out-of-store gun purchases whether at gun shows or between private parties ought to carry a registration requirement just like the dealers have. This could be done with smart-phone apps direct to government data-bases. I don't see how any of this would negatively impact the rights of gun owners. Guns are - like cars - potentially deadly devices and should be as track-able as a car.

I agree that faith-based moral training is effective. But many Americans no longer believe in a god. This will not change, most likely, except to become more pronounced. But that doesn't mean that moral training does not belong in schools. We should be teaching societal morals in a formal way, basing them on which codes of behavior have produced good societies historically. Additionally, empathy training should be at least an occasional part of early education. Empathy is just the ability to vividly imagine the pain of others. If this was openly encouraged - perhaps through verbal exercises or play-acting - a child's natural ability to empathize might be brought out. Also this would be helpful in identifying children with a deficit in this area so that they might get special attention.

And it is time for Hollywood to accept their role in the culture. Any hyper-violent film ought to receive a rating that would help parents avoid it. And we, as consumers, ought to do just that.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. These are just my own opinions, based on my own perceptions. Feel free to share yours with me, or mine with others.

Dave Morrison ... December 17, 2012

Friday, March 30, 2012

Why Does Time Fly?

It is common knowledge that time seems to pass at different rates. We all know the old saw, "Time flies when you're having fun". And we also know that, as we get older, the days seem to slip by faster and faster. I'm old enough now, that I hear that complaint a lot. Every year ... shorter than the one before. Why? We know that the Earth is not really lapping the sun at a faster rate. We know that it is our perceptions that have changed. But what exactly causes this changed perception, and can anything be done to slow the calendar down a bit?

I have good news. Not only have I figured out why time goes by faster each year for most of us, but I can tell you how to slow it down. You can make your years - from now on - go by as slowly as they did back in High School. And you can enrich your life while doing it.

So why does it happen? There are a couple of theories out there. The one I hear most has to do with fractions. The idea is that, as we grow older, each passing year represents a smaller fraction of our life in total. So at fifty, a year is only a fiftieth of my total life, while at twelve, a year is a full twelfth of the whole thing. We all remember the seemingly endless weeks leading up to summer vacation. Back then, life moved like a glacier set in concrete.

The 'fraction' thing sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation. I once thought that myself. It's possible that I even made it up. I remember saying it to people, but not where I first heard it. But no matter ... because it's nonsense. Forget about the problem of why it would be that our brains would be ticking off the hours of our lives like a stop-watch and then calculating each according to it's comparative fractional value. Forget about that. In order to disprove this theory one need only find that twelve-year-old and ask him. Ask first in the late spring. Ask if the year is flying by. Then ask, in the fall, if summer seemed long or short. You know the answers you'll get. If that all takes too long, here's a Cliff's Notes version. Ask on Friday morning and again Sunday at bedtime. The week will be dragging endlessly on, while the weekend will have come and gone in the wink of an eye.

What makes that happen? The answer lies in understanding a couple of things. First we have to consider why one year might seem very long and another very short. I propose that the only way of gauging that is by looking back across it while it is still recent history. Any considerable span of time is made up of many, many days, hours, moments. The more of them that we can remember, the fuller will seem the span which contains them. And if it seems chock-full of days and moments, it will seem like a long span. If on the other hand, we don't vividly remember an awful lot of moments, it will - being sparsely populated by memories - seem to have gone by quickly.

So what would cause a year to contain so many memorable days that it seems like it must have been an extra-long year? Are you ready? Trauma! I don't mean the kind of trauma that sends you to a hospital by helicopter, or into the arms of therapy. I am talking about traumatic memory. Anything that makes you feel slightly afraid, is entered into your long-term memory. This is an evolutionary adaptation. It is, to a creature living in a dangerous world, of great value to remember when and where that creature encountered danger, so that it might avoid the danger next time round. Almost stepped off a ledge? Better etch that into the permanent record. Ate a flower that looked good but made your guts twist into knots? Don't forget what that looked like. Snakes like to dangle from trees, bears hole up in caves. All of this info needs never to be forgotten.

On the other hand, for those long days of summer where one had only to eat from nearby trees, and occasionally mate, or wrastle with the younguns? Pleasant, but uneventful. Not much point in wasting space on the hard-drive. We inherited the basic structures of those old primate brains, and that is why some time flies by and some drags. It has everything to do with how much of the time contained within any span was fraught with tension, thereby rating moments stored in the brain permanently.

For our twelve-year-old, the whole school year is tension. There are things to learn that don't seem learnable, tests always looming, the confusing mystery of girls, and likely bullies in the schoolyard and imminent failure on the ball-field. He's got a long-term memory working overtime. Summer is a lark by comparison. You see my point.

It isn't only danger that can etch a memory deep. Nor is a permanently stored memory always a bad memory. All that is required is that, whatever you are doing, it takes you far enough outside your comfort zone that your mammal brain captures it into memory just to be on the safe side.

Imagine that you are fifteen and trying out for the cheerleading squad. Imagine that you do great and go home victorious. You will never forget that, and you might think that gives the lie to my theory. But it doesn't. Even though that was a day of triumph and joy ... it was also a day wherein you risked rejection and disappointment. Chances are that you will remember in great detail, the mental processes that gripped you in the days leading up to that pivotal moment. You may remember the moment itself, and the heightened reality directly after. But probably the day after cheerleader try-outs is now lost to memory.

To keep it simple, it's like this: Whatever you do that takes you out of your comfort zone - either voluntarily and excitedly, or due to misfortune - will be remembered. The more impact that it has on you emotionally, the longer it will stay with you (excepting, of course, severe trauma that leads to some sort of self-protective blocking). You'll remember the first overwhelming joy at meeting a loved one, but not every moment that you later spent with that same loved one. One moment knocked you out of your comfort zone, however joyously, and the latter moments were within your comfort zone and didn't trigger the internal tape machine.

So, it's the number of moments per year that you can enter into long-term memory, that will determine how long that year will seem upon reflection.

And if your years are going by faster and faster, it is probably because you have worked at making your life run smoother and more predictably. That's what we mostly do. We are more confident in our jobs, more comfortable in our relationships, more repetitious in our day-to-day habits. We have engineered lives for ourselves that insure a safe and snug cocoon firmly within our most comfortable zone. That is why we turn around and the summer is gone and we don't know where it went.

You are probably way ahead of me by now. You are probably thinking of all the things that you've wanted to do but put off because to attempt them scares you a little. Those are, of course, the very things that will slow down the merry-go-round.

As we get older, we think a little bit more often of the end. I can't speak for you, but I don't want my life to have just been a rote, careful walk through a predetermined course of action. I am terrified at the thought of getting to the last day, and knowing that I let it all get away from me. I look back on vast tracts of time and barely remember what I was doing during those years. It's almost a Rip Van Winkle sort of feeling. My beard is gray. My skin is loose. What happened?

But I am pleased to say that I have gotten the clock slowed down considerably in the last few years. I did it by stepping (and by being pushed) out beyond the confines of my own predictability. And I can't see any reason why I can't stay just enough off-balance to keep the memory-camera firing away and storing.

I'm not talking about grand bucket-list gestures here. You will not see me on your way up Everest. Just a little more of what I think I might, and a little less of what I know I can. That should do the trick.

Dave Morrison March 30, 2012