Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Blogger personal inventory

In the spirit of this movie (currently playing on one of the cable channels, and certainly the best film ever spun-off from a Saturday Night Live character, because it actually tells a fuckin' story and says something important; e.g., "your family's trauma can screw you up, you can't change their behavior, but you have a responsibility to the universe to try to heal yourself"), as a result of an offline comment from Dharmonia, and in light of the fact that I've just rolled over the two-year mark (first post, on "Radical Pedagogy," on June 08 2005) here's an update/reclarification of the point and parameters of this blog. Like most, I started this blog before I had a clear sense of its purpose and point-of-view, but those have since come into focus, as follows:

Just as it says in the header, the topics emphasized are "Music, vernacular culture, radical politics, education, history."

To take them in roughly reverse order:


What I didn't know when I started writing but have been happy to discover in the last two years is that readers responded very favorably and encouragingly to the inclusion of "personal history"--principally in the "100 Greats" posts. Those readers suggested that there was a legitimate authorial voice in the blend of musical appreciation and personal memoir. I'm a professional historian, have thought a lot about the ethics, procedures, perspectives, and purposes of professional history--but personal history, at least as it relates to other topics in the subject header, seems to have been legitimated as well.


I'm a professional educator, now tenured, so I can speak more freely than formerly. Many great education bloggers are not tenured and are forced to be more circumspect than they should have to be--so I feel a certain responsibility to speak out, particularly on ways I see my job as impacted by or providing insight into public discourse. I've been involved in teaching since around 1974, have been engaged in tertiary-level educational institutions since 1977, was a graduate student for 12 years, and have been teaching at the college level since 1990. I've taught at institutions which exemplified the rigor, positive energy, ethics, and professional responsibility that education can provide--and at their converse. I've taught in a public-arts/ non-profit environment since at least 1987, and I have published extensively on music, public arts, and education. So I figured I'm entitled to express a reasonably thoughtful and well-reasoned perspective on public education. In practice, this can mean praising public or private policies, procedures, strategies or events that I think fight the goals of education--and hating on those that seem to countervail. I also take part in public discussions (virtual and meatspace) on these topics and feel entitled to do so.

What I don't do is diss my present colleagues. Partly that's simple ethics--back-door workplace gossip is counterproductive and is much better replaced by face-to-face negotiation and/or mediation. Partly it's simply grizzled age--I've been working and teaching in professional educational environments long enough to know that I see things a lot more clearly and objectively in hindsight than when they're going down. So why would/should I rant about current events in my current place of work? I don't know what the hell they mean (yet) anyway.

Radical politics

I have been a fellow-traveler in the world of Left politics since at least 1964, when my mother took me in the stroller to hear Rev King speak. One of my earliest memories is of JFK's funeral (and no, I don't think he was a Leftist; I do think that the perception amongst certain powerful right-wing factions in the USA and specifically TX and the military-industrial complex that he was a Leftist led to an assassination conspiracy and successful right-wing coup). But when I really became radicalized was when I became a formal student of history, around 1972. I don't believe that anyone, reading history objectively and without a preconceived and distorting historical model (cf Victor Davis Hanson), can escape an awareness of a few key points: the degree to which racism, nationalism, fascism, terrorism, and many other "Isms" have been used as masks, rabble-rousing demagogic points, or distractions from the fundamental reality, in all of world history, that the rich Want More and will do Anything They Need to keep the poor from changing their station. The rich prosper--the poor suffer and die. As a teacher, I do not speak about radical politics in the classroom, unless I am teaching a course (as I have done) with that as a specific part of the course description, and even there I engage with radical politics as an historical and philosophical phenomenon, addressing all ends of the political spectrum.

But my personal politics are unquestionably radical. I believe we live in a deeply unjust society, in which mass media, the political process, the economic system, are all extensively and intensively organized to benefit the rich and to mislead and exploit the poor.

I was poor for a long time-poor enough to not have the rent, to have to sleep in my car, to go without medical or dental care, to go without. I remember the days when a busted alternator in our sole, old, junker car was a disaster, because it would take 100 bucks to fix it. I will never forget that, I will never deny that I hold those views, and I will never unjustly take the side of the rich against the poor.

Vernacular culture

"Vernacular culture" just means culture that is learned, taught, passed-on, and/or retained through primarily aural/oral methods. It is not only "folk" culture, not only "traditional" culture, not (a grab-bag) "everything that isn't popular" or "isn't classical." Vernacular culture is the product of a particular process: the process of learning, teaching, remember, and passing-on culture (songs, tunes, dances, stories, recipes, remedies, skills of all sorts) by demonstration, imitation, and critique. I am specifically interested in vernacular musics simply because most of the musics that I love (see "100 Greats" for a sampler) and almost all of the musics that I play are so learned, taught, and passed-on. I believe these musics are important because (a) I love them and intuitively believe in their greatness; (b) because they are so ubiquitous: though they have been neglected by Western musicology, my chosen field, they represent the vast majority of the world's musics; (c) because they are so functional: because in most cultures, all this rainbow of beautiful musics accomplish crucial social business, helping people be born, mature, marry, die, celebrate, and mourn; (d) because they are constantly under attack by the forces of centralization, standardization, mass culture, and totalitarian governments. Individuality (personal or cultural) threatens mass-governments, and is victimized, persecuted, or outlawed by them as a result. I believe it is part of my job to stand against this "cultural grey-out." That is why I lecture, broadcast, write and teach about these musics, practice them myself, and pass them on to younger generations: because I believe in (a) through (d) above, and because such teaching is the most effective, yet ethical and non-demagogic, radicalizing skill I have.


Music saved my life. Not exclusively, and not completely (we all took a few wounds along the way), and certainly not without the offices of the myriad wonderful Boddhisattvas I met along the way. But music, before I met those people, before I could play it myself, Saved. My. Life--and continues to do so on a daily basis. In tandem with the people I love, music is what permits me to make sense of the world and whatever may be my place in it.

I have seen it save other lives as well. For the past 30 years of my life, I have been committed, By Any Means Necessary[1], to using music to save other lives. So those anecdotes out of my personal history that help me express that seem relevant.

Music expresses love. As Tony MacMahon said at the beginning of his earthshaking version of An Buachaillin Ban, "In the modern world, the loss of love is the greatest tragedy we face." Musicians believe that playing music is their best, most open way of expressing the Holy Yes of love.

A small icon of Manjusri, the warrior Buddha who wields a sword that cuts through ignorance, sits above my desk. I would die--or incur the unavoidable bad karma in taking up Manjusri's sword of discriminating wisdom--before I would let anything, anyone, from the universe to a fascist government, take away from me or from my students the ability to do this.

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Delighted to discover that Malcolm X got this phrase from Sartre. Here are the relevant quotes:

“I was not the one to invent lies: they were created in a society divided by class and each of us inherited lies when we were born. It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies: it is by eradicating class by any means necessary.” — Jean Paul Sartre, Dirty Hands: act 5, scene 3. 1963[1]

“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” — Malcolm X, 1965[2]

“Any means” is generally considered to leave open all available tactics for the desired ends, including violence. However, the “necessary” qualifier adds a caveat—if violence is not necessary, then presumably, it should not be used.

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