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Reflection

January 3rd, 2014
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The new calendar year, like birthdays, is a common time for us to remember to take a pause from all our doing to reflect. This often takes the form of “New Year’s Resolutions.” These are goals which some strive towards and others take as unbreakable promises; and which typically involve some self-improvement.

As I wish a Successful, Productive, and Happy New Year to all, I’ll offer my own take on reflection. The following is a self-check-up, which I outlined for myself a couple years ago:

Relationships

Do I see my family enough?

Do I have a fair amount of friends?

Are any of them doing badly? Am I letting any of them down?

Do I spend the right amount of time alone/socializing?

Politics/Community

What am I trying to accomplish right now to better my community?

Am I focused on the right issue?

Am I putting in enough/too much time?

Work

Do I like what I’m doing?

Is it worth my time?

Am I working too much?

Health

Am I exercising enough?

Am I eating well?

Do I have any problems I have not been attending to?

Am I sleeping enough?

Do I use my mind to solve difficult problems frequently enough?

Do I think about new ideas?

Recreation

Am I having enough/too much fun?

Is there anything I love that I’m forgetting to do?

Overall

Is there anything unimportant on which I spend a lot of my time?

The exact questions of this check-up can certainly be adjusted for different people, depending on what they value or find important. If you are privy to a theory of health that I don’t know about, wherein exercise is not an important component, then obviously you should leave out that question. But I believe that a lot of these questions would apply to a great many people, and that the structure of considering different areas of one’s life, and then asking a few questions about each, is quite helpful.

At one time in my life, a certain question will have an easy and instant answer, while another question provokes a lengthy reflection. At another time, this may reverse. Regardless, I find it useful to go down the full list of questions, and at least briefly check in on each area.

As for timing, I try to remember to do this about twice a year (or when facing a critical moment in my life) without the aid of New Year’s or my Birthday; but in reality both those events often serve as needed reminders.

Within these questions, you may observe some of the framework of my thinking on life: that habits have a very strong hold on us; that conscious thought can be applied to tinker with our habits, and produce significant results; and that much of decision-making is a matter of prioritizing, and choosing what is most important to us. If any of these ideas seem exceedingly strange or erroneous to you, you may not be interested in my check-up; but if you are curious, I highly suggest you give it a try!

Boycott “The Sing-Off”

December 19th, 2013
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Recently I had the pleasure and horror of seeing the first episode of the TV show The Sing-Off. Anyone who knows me will confirm that I am a huge, huge music-lover. And hokey and fake as reality tv competitions may be, I am still totally willing to accept some discomfort along with fantastic singing or dancing. Eight or nine of the ten groups on this season of the Sing-Off sounded amazing to me; I believe they are all very talented. Listening to their music was a great joy, and one which I do not in the least want to pass up. Yet the misogyny of the show demands a response, demands that we let its creators know, in whatever way we can, that we do not accept it. I won’t give the show a single up-tick on hulu, youtube, or anywhere; I won’t give the ads being run on the show a single extra view. Allow me to point out the crimes, for those who missed them or did not watch.

First, a group performed Blurred Lines, which I’ve wanted to write about for some time, because it’s a tricky song, a much-listened to song, a great-sounding song, and an infuriating work of misogyny. I believe it is difficult to interpret; I had to read a bunch of different writings about it and ponder the lyrics before I could confidently call it a misogynistic song. The singer describes the female addressee as an animal with an uncontrollable sexual appetite that will force her to cheat on her boyfriend; who likes being treated roughly by male partners; who may try to resist or say no, but eventually is guaranteed to succumb; and who will never be able to maintain a monogamous relationship. I think there are a wide variety of women in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with some women out there having voracious sexual appetites or enjoying rough sex. There’s probably something wrong with cheating on your boyfriend without some prior understanding/agreement. But in any case, I think there are a couple things wrong with this guy singing these lyrics.

One, I think it’s distressing that again and again and again in pop music, women are sexualized. I’ve just acknowledged the variety among women, why don’t music executives acknowledge it? Presenting females the same way every time is bad for female audiences, because it actually shows them only one option for how they can be, rather than letting them know they can be anything. In fact, the song calls her “a good girl” in order to say that whether a girl acts prudish or lascivious, there is only one possible underlying reality. The second major problem is that the source of this description is a man who does not have a long-standing relationship with the girl. How does he claim to know so much about her? How can he be so sure that his advances are not sexual harassment? That her rejections are prevarications? Unfortunately, I can think of one scenario in which a guy would be so confident: if he believed that there was no variation among women, and every single one was like this. Even more than the description of the addressee in the song, it is the manner of the singer, so confident in his knowledge, so impervious to what the woman says about herself, that is deeply disturbing, and provides a perfect model for other men to be misogynists.

Is it the show’s fault that this all-male group of college students chose this song? Not necessarily. But did the shows writers know in advance what song they had chosen? Almost certainly. Could they have advised them to choose something else? Absolutely! That is what they clearly should have done. But let’s even imagine that the groups have prepared a song on their own, and then they come to the show and have to perform it. At this point, it’s the responsibility of the host or one of the three judges to tell the young men and the audience: “you sang beautifully, but you should be aware that this is a sick song, and put some more thought into your material selection in the future.” Without this, those kids will never learn; and without this, all the millions of viewers will assume the song is ok. Silence is tacit agreement. (Similarly, continuing to watch the show would be tacit agreement with it).

The next failure of the show was the focus on women’s looks. In welcoming the three judges to the show, Nick Lachey tells Jewel “it’s nice to have someone attractive on the panel to help balance out these two.” Here’s a woman who has been writing and performing music in multiple genres for 20+ years, coming to a show about music, and Nick calls out her looks as an asset to the show. By the way, in only about five minutes of interspersed “conversation” through the episode, he managed to score a kind of terrible trifecta of misogyny, racism, and anti-intellectualism, suggesting that what Jewel brings to the show is female good looks, what Shawn brings is being black, and what Ben brings is big words. I suppose, this is natural, since it’s probably what the producers had in mind when selecting the judges.

But Nick was not the only one. When Elements finished their performance, Shawn told them “first of all you guys all look beautiful, first and foremost you all look great,” to which they smiled broadly. What?? That’s the most important thing about them, on a show about music, when they just sang? A big to-do is made about how “without a male to sing low notes for them, they are at this big disadvantage,” which I also consider a misogynistic way of framing things (“what would women do without men?”– get oppressed and abused less). Did anyone express any concern that any of the all-male groups would be lacking something without female voices? That’s our clue that the storyline about the all-female group is ridiculous. Elements present themselves as strong and independent women who are going to prove they can do well without men. That’s a very weak fake-feminist stance (setting out to disprove their inferiority gives wrong respect to a preposterous notion), which in their defense was probably forced on them by the show’s writers. I certainly pity the plight they are in, up there in the public eye, surrounded by misogyny. But until they have the independence and strength to interrupt– “Excuse me?? What did you just say? How are our looks first and foremost?”– they will certainly not be role models for my daughter. At least Jewel may have been calling out the “judge women by their looks, judge men by their substance” double-standard when she told Nick that his “dimples are working hard for a living too.”

This show is sick, with its simplistic take on every person involved, the painfully clueless unfunny and oppression-laden banter of Nick Lachey, and its stupid fake monolithic pre-written reality storylines. It’s going to hurt to pass up on such good music, but opposing oppression is an overriding necessity.

PS- Anywhere you hear the song Blurred Lines being played, express your dissatisfaction with the musical choice of the DJ, radio station, restaurant, whatever.

Favorite Songs: Words I Never Said by Lupe Fiasco

November 2nd, 2013
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For almost any song to be among my favorites, it has to be interesting lyrically and have an ear-pleasing sound that makes me happy to hear it repeatedly. Of course, my focus and primary interest is in words and ideas, so that’s what I’ll be discussing here. I could tell you that it sounds great to me as well, but I would not be able to explain too much more about why. On the other hand, I could talk at great length about the very important ideas brought up in this song. I’ll also be referring to details from the music video, so I suggest you watch it:

Video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22l1sf5JZD0

Lyrics:

It’s so loud inside my head
with words that I should have said
as I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back
the words I never said.
I can’t take back
the words i never said.

I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit
Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets
How much money does it take to really make a full clip
9/11 Building 7, did they really pull it?
UNH! [pause] And a bunch of other cover ups
Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts.
If you think that hurts, then wait here comes the uppercut
the school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up.
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust.
you get it then they move it so you never keepin up enough.
If you turn on tv, all you see’s a bunch of what the fuck,
dude is dating so-and-so, blabbering bout such-and-such.
And that ain’t Jersey Shores, homey that’s the news.
and these the same people sposedly tellin us the truth.
Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist,
Gaza strip was gettin bombed Obama didn’t say shit.
That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one neither,
I’m a part of the problem, my problem is i’m peaceful.
and i believe in the people.

It’s so loud inside my head
with words that I should have said.
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back
the words I never said.

Now you can say it aint our fault if we never heard it,
But if we know better then we probably deserve it.
Jihad is not holy war, where’s that in the worship?
Murdering is not Islam, and you are not observant.
[pause] And you are not a Muslim,
Israel don’t take my side, cause look how far you pushed them.
Walk with me into the ghetto, this where all the kush went.
Complain about the liquor store, but what you drinking liquor for;
Complain about the gloom but when d’you pick a broom up?
Just listenin to Pac ain’t gon make it stop
A rebel in your thoughts, ain’t gon make it halt.
If you don’t become a actor, you’ll never be a factor.
Pills with million side effects, take em when the pain’s felt.
Wash it down with diet soda, killing off your brain cells.
Crooked banks around the world would gladly give a loan today,
so if you ever miss a payment, they can take your home away!

It’s so loud inside my head
with words that I should have said
as I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back
the words I never said.
(never said)
I can’t take back
the words i never said.

I really think the silence is worse than all the violence.
Fear is such a weak emotion, that’s why I despise it.
We scared of almost everything, afraid to even tell the truth,
so scared of what you think of me, I’m scared of even telling you.
Sometimes I’m like the only person I feel safe to tell it to;
I’m locked inside a cell in me, I know that there’s a jail in you.
Consider this your bailin out, so take a breath, inhale a few
My screams is finally getting free, my thoughts is finally yelling through.

/end Lyrics

The main theme of this song is that there are lots of things that are wrong with the world, but people are not speaking of them. In the music video, the entire population walks around with these masks over their mouths, and it is open to interpretation whether these masks are a requirement of society or an individual choice. Censorship can exist at several levels: overt, legal censorship, in which the oppressive organization formally forbids certain expression and associates penalties with it; structural or implied censorship, in which people simply understand that they should not say certain things as they will lose professionally or personally if they do; and self-censorship, in which you are afraid for any reason (e.g. embarrassment) of saying what you think. And before we go on, let me make clear that I don’t think self-censorship is always bad; imagine if people never stopped saying everything that popped into their heads. I think we’d all become hermits.

There are several suggestions that the censorship Lupe is thinking about here is self-censorship. The refrain is a very internal set of thoughts, the speaker regretting what appear to be their own free decisions. There is no mention anywhere in the lyrics of any cost associated with speaking out, until the short final stanza, where the speaker says they are afraid of what another person will think of them– consistent with self-censorship. And in the video, it turns out that one can easily remove the face mask with one’s hands if one so chooses, suggesting it could be a matter of personal courage, not instruments of oppression. That said, there are a couple indications that argue against this being entirely self-censorship. The video begins with a spiritual leader being abducted by police at a rally; most likely her only crime was speaking (she is then apparently placed in a device to keep her eyes open to be re-educated by a video of soda, pills, etc.). Similarly, when Lupe begins speaking freely in the bus, one of the other passengers hurriedly dials a phone number, and at the very next stop, police come on to attack him and stop him from speaking; they then also lock him away indefinitely. Within the lyrics themselves, there is only the metaphor allusion in the final stanza to the “cell in me” and “jail in you.” This could simply be a natural metaphor (internal inhibitions and fears feeling like a prison), but it could also be an apt reference to a society where the specter of prison (featured in the video) haunts us.

I believe different conclusions could be drawn, but personally feel that the focus of the song is on self-censorship and the personal choice of whether or not to speak, within a background of structural censorship. The society and problems he describes in the first two stanza are so full of violence, that it seems to me that violence is a constant threat, and a piece of the censorship that occurs. But Lupe thinks that regardless of the threats, people always have the power to make the right choice– to speak the truth.

The final stanza, whose uncharacteristic brevity (typically rap songs have 3 verses of 16 lines each; Lupe’s first and second verses are 19 and 16 lines; the third is 8) emphasizes its importance begins by stating that “the silence is worse than all the violence,” which clearly says that regardless of cost, we are required to speak up. The chorus also repeats “regret” for not speaking up, again indicating that speaking up was the correct choice. But Lupe is not just speaking of a personal choice for himself. He is not saying that he personally regrets if he does not speak up, so that’s his choice, and we can make our own. No, in his final couplet he tells us to “consider this [his speaking up] your bailin out:” he expects us to now free ourselves of self-censorship and speak up as well.

“What hope is there?” many people wonder. Indeed, this video shows a grim picture of the world: violence all around, our fellow citizens so cowed or brainwashed or drugged-up they call the ever-present police on us, and hordes of citizens carted away to jails for reeducation or long-term incarceration. But Lupe is offering a small hope in that final couplet and the final image of the video: though he may be carted away for speaking, we have been bailed out and are now able to carry on his message (in the video, the young woman who reads his manifesto and takes off her mask is a stand-in for the addressee). Also note how Lupe himself was freed in the video: a previous inmate of the same cell speaks to him via a message left in the wall. There’s a chain where one of us frees the next, which could potentially lead to lots of free, honest, brave people.

I believe this is quite a plausible and powerful idea. Hearing someone else say something you have been thinking can go a very long way towards making you feel more confident, and thus able to end your own self-censorship. Let me go back a step: in our present society there is dissent, there are criticisms leveled publicly at Obama and other politicians. But there is permissible dissent, and impermissible dissent. There are certain criticisms and arguments that are on the table, and that people are in fact encouraged to yell back and forth at each other about ad nauseum. But there are other arguments that are absolutely not acceptable; people rightly recognize that they may be ostracized in various ways for voicing them.

Let’s clarify with examples. You can argue about whether it’s America’s business to be involved in wars overseas; or whether or not they are worth the cost in American dollars and American lives. You can discuss whether income taxes should be increased or decreased by 1%. You can argue whether the Fed raising interest rates by .1% would stimulate job growth or stymie it. You can not talk about the American military being the most murderous organization in the world. You can not talk about capitalism being a complete failure, and the need to redistribute all society’s resources evenly. I went through much of my life thinking that I could find some sympathetic ears if I argued that in a rich society, the poorest should have access to basic necessities: food, water, shelter, health care; but I figured that very few would even listen to me if I suggested that capitalism has proven a monstrous and violent failure. So in general, I kept that to myself, even though it seemed a self-evident truth to me.

Lupe opens this song with a bang: the War on Terror is BS, its goal is just a pretext for continuing militarism. That being the case, we have to ask ourselves about the pretext that launched the War on Terror: 9/11. Did the architects of the war design that as well? And after a single quatrain, Lupe pauses for half a line to give an enthusiastic UNH, as you can feel the prison bars around his listeners being shattered. Saying that the U.S. government or military-spy-industrial complex could have executed or allowed the attacks of 9/11 is a perfect example of the kind of comment that one feels will cause others to dismiss you as a lunatic. Lupe just throws it out there without fear at the very start of the song, and you feel so much freer and braver for it. I observed the same in my own life, when I met an old friend after years without contact and after only a minute of catching up ventured: “Capitalism doesn’t work.” “No, not at all,” he replied, with a grin and a chuckle. I told other people. They also knew. What?? All this time that I’d been afraid… for no reason. I wasn’t alone; I was only made to feel I was alone. Lupe says he despises fear, but the very project of this song shows that he also understands fear: how it is deliberately created, how it takes hold in us– and how to break it!

For any of the unacceptable lines of dissent, there are certain refutations that have been propagated throughout society, so that they will pop-up as unscrutinized knee-jerk reactions. For example: did the U.S. government have a role in the 9/11 attacks. Reaction: you are insane, the people who run our country would never murder their own citizens. Correction: of course they are completely indifferent to the murder of their own citizens. Look at the scale with which our government commits murder, and then ask yourself who is out of touch with reality: the person who admits that the government could have committed a particular massacre or the person who thinks it is impossible?

Capitalism doesn’t work. Reaction: it may not be pretty but it’s what works. What’s your unrealistic, idealistic, impossible utopia? Correction: apparently your definition of “working” is “hurtling towards the annihilation of the human race and nearly all other species on our planet. Pointing out that something is not working does not require a detailed plan of the best possible alternative, merely a belief that there is a chance that something better is out there, and that it would be worthwhile to start working on it. Additionally, it’s illogical to dismiss something out of hand for having good ideas or ideals behind it; that should be an advantage, rather than cause for rejection.

In many cases, the people throwing these responses at you may actually be doing so reflexively, because it’s the safe thing to do. Maybe they are hoping that several other people will speak up and agree with the lunacy you have just uttered, so that they will feel brave enough to admit that they have the same heretical thoughts.

Lupe’s skill as a lyricist, along with a variety of random factors, has put him in a position where he can speak and be heard by millions; and he has used that position not to convince us to shake our asses, but to speak truth and give us courage to also speak truth. That’s what the words we should have said are: the truth (see verse 3, line 3). The haunting regret of the chorus is so perfectly rendered, but let’s all leave that behind us, and instead free the world with some enthusiastic “UNH!”s.

I could go on and on about the excellent lines and ideas in this song– almost every line is fantastic. One more nice point lies in the phrase “I can’t take back the words I never said.” Normally, we only talk about undoing an action, something that is done. But doing nothing or saying nothing is a choice and an action just the same as doing something. This idea is highlighted in a few other moments like “if we know better, then we probably deserve it;” “when d’you pick a broom up?” “if you don’t become a actor.” Lupe is strongly rejecting the false palliative that if we don’t become involved in something we are absolved of responsibility for it. This is a wrong idea, but one that is widely circulated because it suits masters and slaves: it breeds apathy and inaction, which preserve the status quo for the masters; and it’s easier for the rest of us to just go about our daily lives and small responsibilities. I’m sorry to lay this burden on you, if you did not shoulder it already, but you, my friends, are all responsible for the world around you.