Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Great Divide

State of the Union 2011Did you watch Tuesday night’s State of the Union address? You all know me well enough by now to know that I was excited about it for a couple of days, and was glued to the TV while it was going on. I even took a few notes.

My impression of it was that although it wasn’t one of President Obama’s more inspiring speeches (like the one he gave at the Arizona memorial recently), it set a good tone. It was short on specifics, but touched on what we need to do in order to move forward. And it mentioned that we move forward together, or not at all, which is exactly right. It was generally optimistic, asserting that Americans have what it takes to come back from the brink of disaster, if we all work together. Even if it means making some tough decisions. (Of course, to me, tax cuts for the rich isn’t a tough decision...more like a no-brainer.)

In the past couple of days, I’ve been reading a lot of analyses of the President’s speech, and late last night I read a short article in Time (an issue from a couple of weeks ago) that sort of crystallized my thoughts. One thing that struck me was the President’s call for investment in infrastructure and education. Much has been made of the word “investment,” with the righties saying that it’s just more spending. Well, sure...but there is an important difference between reckless spending and investment in our future.

It seems to me that this might very well be the fundamental difference between the right and the left, even beyond their differences when it comes to social issues. I don’t think anyone will argue that we need to spend our money wisely, but to completely stop funding for so many of the projects and issues and institutions that make us unique and wonderful (as well as keeping us healthy) seems like the height of folly to me. Whether it’s the National Park System or NPR, literacy programs or free clinics, highway projects or scientific research (yes, including fruit flies!), these are things that enrich, educate, and edify us. ALL of us, as a country.

One of the things that I liked about Barack Obama from the moment I read The Audacity of Hope was that he seemed to have vision. He seemed to be able to look at the big picture and the long view, and understand how interconnected all of these things are. To realize that we are part of a global economy now, and what happens on the other side of the world can affect us here. He is still taking that view, and I agree with it. Although everyone needs to suck it up and make some sacrifices, there are still certain things that we need to maintain and improve upon if we want to compete globally. We are rapidly losing that contest, and we ignore these things (or don’t fund them) at our own peril.

A couple of examples. In our highly mobile culture, we need to have decent highways upon which to drive, and safe bridges. Our interstate system dates to the 1950s, and these things must be maintained. It’s how your food gets to your supermarket, it’s how goods and products get to the store so that YOU, the consumer, can spend your hard-earned cash at places like hardware stores, where you buy things to improve your own home so that your quality of life is better! See how it’s all connected? Some repairs have to be made; if you’ve got a leak in your roof and just let it go, the problem is going to become much worse and cost much more to fix. A simple roof repair vs. structural repair due to water damage, possible environmental cleanup due to mold, replacement of damaged household goods, and so on. I think we need to understand that we need to fix our country’s leaky roof. An added bonus is that such projects will create jobs. (Think the WPA.) More about jobs in a moment.

One very leaky roof right now is our education problem, and people, we really do have a problem. We are falling behind many others, especially when it comes to science education. (I’ll attribute part of that to the idiotic notion that creationism is in any way science and should be taught along REAL science, but that’s a post for another day.) The decent-paying jobs of the future—indeed, the jobs of the present—are going to come in the scientific field.

Stude5During the 2008 Presidential campaign, John McCain made a campaign stop in Michigan and talked about the auto industry and those jobs. He said something to the effect of Michigan has lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, and here’s a hard truth, folks...a lot of them aren’t coming back. Although I didn’t support McCain, I gave him credit for telling it like it is. There will always be manufacturing jobs, but not to the extent that our post-WWII manufacturing boom guaranteed. There was a recent story in my local paper about all the manufacturing jobs that South Bend is losing; comments on the story blamed the local government for the job losses. I believe it is not a local phenomenon, and what is happening on a local scale is reflected across the entire country. We MUST begin to put more of a focus on education beyond high school. We need to change our mindset, encourage kids to study, and to place a value on knowledge—and especially a value on our teachers. The days when you could follow in your father’s footsteps at the Studebaker factory have gone the way of...well, the Studebaker.

The article I mentioned was titled “Where the Jobs Aren’t” (Zachary Karabell) and raised the possibility that our current rate of unemployment is not cyclical as in years past (a reaction to a crisis or recession) and is now structural. Advances in technology and increasing globalization have resulted in higher productivity, which then results in fewer workers necessary. There is no going back from that. The jobs we need to expand upon are those in research and development, jobs in which we work to solve problems like oil dependence, and health care jobs to care for our aging populace. All of these require advanced degrees.

It’s all connected. The Time article states “...the U.S. can manage high unemployment if it focuses on building a new economy with cutting-edge infrastructure and education that rivals that found anywhere else in the world.” As Rand Paul and his fellow teabaggers propose cuts in the Department of Education, the NIH, and the FDA, I despair for the future of our country. This is exactly what we need to ensure that we continue to fund, and yes...invest in.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Empathy for the Devil

Stacy Petrie“You don’t know how I feel! NOBODY knows how I feel!”

Remember Rob Petrie’s brother Stacy (played by Dick Van Dyke’s real brother, Jerry) yelling that whenever anyone told him they knew how he felt? Have you ever had to deal with that person for real?

I have, and it gets old real quick. People who feel that way seem to be saying that no matter what you’ve experienced, no matter what you’ve thought, or how much you’ve studied a situation or an issue, you can’t possibly know how they feel unless you’re exactly like them.

Technically, I suppose that’s true. Unless I’m your clone and have experienced every single thing that you have, lived every moment the exact same way you have, I probably can’t fully comprehend how you feel.

That doesn’t mean that I am not sympathetic to your situation, or that I don’t have empathy for what you have been through. It doesn’t mean that I lack the intellectual capacity to comprehend how your experiences might have made you feel, or how they might have colored your perception of the world around you. It also doesn’t mean that I have no right to comment on a situation merely because I am not the same stripe as the people involved. I may not be a child in Africa, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be horrified by the perils that the majority of them face, and that certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t recommend donations to wonderful organizations like Nothing But Nets or Doctors Without Borders because of the aid that they provide to these kids.

EmpathyI have opinions on racial prejudice and bigotry; are my opinions and thoughts on such subjects invalid because I am a white woman? Am I not allowed to say that I deplore such attitudes without hearing that I have no right to speak of such things because “NOBODY knows how we feel!” Do I not get to call people out on their racist remarks because there is simply no way I can possibly speak with any sort of authority or even voice my condemnation of such behavior because it hasn’t been my experience? If I speak out on such things, am I merely playing lip service to ending prejudice, am I trying to prove my progressive credentials, and am I busily congratulating myself because I voted for Barack Obama, thereby personally solving every prejudice problem in the country?

You know one of the things that has been my experience? It’s that sometimes people have such a Sequoia-sized chip on their shoulder that they can’t recognize when someone is on their side. Maybe it’s easier for them to say that NOBODY knows how they feel! and that no one can possibly relate, that no one can ever truly support them because no one else is like them. Maybe years of being the victim has left them unable to realize that not everyone wants to paint them into that corner...and maybe by their continued obstinacy in refusing to recognize that someone just wanted to be a friend to them, and was willing to discuss such matters—without being unfairly accused as being some sort of racist—they have effectively painted themselves into that very same corner, all on their own. You lost a friendship because of your unreasonable accusations? Congratulations. You’re a victim.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Beth’s Music Moment: The Glimmer Twins and the Rise of Rock and Roll

Glimmer TwinsIn my previous entry, I mentioned that I was reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. I am still enjoying it immensely (thanks, Darren!), and I’m on the part where The Rolling Stones have just formed, and are starting to get some local gigs.

Keith writes about running into Mick Jagger (who he knew as a schoolkid) at a train station and finding out that Mick was heavily into the kind of music that Keith liked, the blues. Keith said that whoever had the records was the one you wanted to hang out with, and Mick had ‘em. He had sources in Chicago where he was able to get records that no one else in the area could get, and the two of them spent endless hours playing the records, over and over and over, as they tried to get the sound, tried to figure out the chord changes, tried to learn the lyrics. It’s fascinating.

What struck me about much of this was Keith’s reverence for the blues and the musicians who play them. He mentions Chicago often, showing how much influence Chicago blues had on rock and roll. Keith, one of the biggest rock stars in the world, writes of these artists with the air of an awestruck teenager. (Which I find charming, and it reminds me of the time Cousin Shane and I got to see the Stones on the Steel Wheels tour. It is the one and only concert I’ve been to where I screamed like a teenager when the band took the stage. True story. I thought I was cooler than that, but I was moved.) I find it incredibly cool to read of what was essentially the birth of rock and roll, at least as we know it today. I’m not saying that the Stones invented rock and roll, not at all. It was a nascent movement at that time, and many musicians were trying to figure out their own sound. Keith writes of blues purists who felt that anything other than a black man playing an acoustic guitar with no accompaniment was most definitely NOT the blues. Even Chicago blues artists were booed when some dared to break out an electric guitar!

Glimmer Twins2Perhaps there are some who find solace or superiority in being such purists, but they’re kind of missing the point. The Stones and others of the time were emulating the artists they loved and admired. The key thing in the context of which I am writing is that they built on that sound and formed their own. They weren’t ripping off the artists by stealing their music and releasing their versions of it, although they did release a few older songs as singles. (People do remakes all the time, and some are good and some are not.) They loved the roots of the songs, learned the rhythms and the key changes, and then got creative and wrote their own. Are their subsequent songs simply rehashing the old songs, stealing the sounds for their own? Yes and no. Their songs contain elements of those blues roots, include many of the same key changes, but there is no denying that they made their own sound and made their own songs. (For those of you that don’t know, the Glimmer Twins are Mick and Keith’s nickname as a songwriting pair, and also the name of their production company. Check out that link to see the list of incredible songs that they’ve written together. Blows my mind.)

Every music genre builds upon those that have come before it. After all, there are only a certain number of notes. But how do people put their own spin on it (so to speak)? How do they place their personal fingerprint on the music? What do they create on their own, after being influenced by these talented and amazing musicians? How are they inspired?

In the case of the Stones, they were motivated and inspired to create some of the most amazing rock and roll we’ve ever heard. Some will argue that the Stones are no longer making great music or relevant to the current music scene. I say, “So what?” I still love listening to stuff they released over four decades ago. Just as they loved listening to stuff that these blues musicians had released years before, and listening to those who were still making similar music. Just because something is old doesn’t make it irrelevant. The Stones are true geezers now, but they still rock like mofos.

An interesting point there, too. We’ve seen the popularity of rock and roll rise in our lifetimes. This is a fairly new phenomenon in the scheme of things. Bluesmen and other musicians make music into their ‘80s and beyond. When was the decision made that rock musicians have to quit at a certain age? The antics and the stage shows might take on a different, calmer tone (haha), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still great musicians playing some great music. The guitar riff in "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" was recently listed as the best/most memorable riff in rock and roll. That's not too shabby, even if it was written some forty years ago.

All I know is that if I put on the Stones, there are still songs that make me dance, make me move, make me feel all rebellious and junk. Isn’t that what rock and roll is all about?

Beth's music moment6