We Hum Along to Infidelity

There is a video of a group of children performing the song “Gentle on My Mind” in this cheerful, anodyne style that makes you sit back and think, oh, how wonderful that he (the songwriter) has such warm thoughts about his girl.  She must be so pleased that he’s thinking about her after he stayed a few nights and then ran off.

Have you ever hummed along to it?

Have you ever taken note of the lyrics:

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line

There are many strange paradoxes in popular culture: our contempt for men who “love ’em and leave ’em” for their cruelty and selfishness, and our worship of songs like “Baby the Rain Must Fall” and “Gentle on my Mind”.  Our cancel culture, about men who cheat.  Our public disapproval of philanderers.  But most people still hum along, as they do with a song about killing an unfaithful wife (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”).

“Gentle on my Mind” is pretty poetic about it:

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’
Cracklin’ caldron in some train yard
My beard a rustling, cold towel, and
A dirty hat pulled low across my face

This gets kind of weird.  Not only is he dumping her– like Gordon Lightfoot in “For Lovin’ Me”, but he’s wandering around like a hobo, not working, evidently, and surviving on soup with his fellow derelicts in “some train yard”.  Quite a picture for his beloved, while she’s warming to the idea of being “gentle on his mind”.

So the gentle part means she isn’t going to put up a fuss about him dropping in for sex now and then, leaving his sleeping bag behind her couch, and then taking off whenever he feels like it.

Elvis Presley recorded it.  So did Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.  But, Aretha Franklin?!  Yes, she did.  Well, that’s liberating!

John Hartford wrote the song, he says, after watching “Dr. Zhivago”.  And from personal experience.

Maybe I misunderstand the lyrics.  Maybe the poor guy had no choice but to move on and eat soup in the train yard.  But it doesn’t sound like it:

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
‘Cause she turned and I was gone

Who’s right?  Well, let’s expand it a little.  Let’s consider Hartford’s wife.

The story of the song narrates the reminiscences of a drifter of his lost love, while moving through backroads and hobo encampments.[2] Betty Hartford, who later divorced her husband, noted to him the similarity between herself and the song’s female character. She questioned John Hartford about the man’s negative feelings toward his marriage. Hartford said he likened her to Lara and attributed the man’s feelings about being trapped in a relationship to his “artistic license”.

There you go.

It was, at one time, one of the most played songs (in all versions) on radio in North America.

Men thinking kindly — or not– about the women they abandoned

Professor Sullivan’s Faux Pas

A professor named Prof. Gregory F. Sullivan was showing a video (the article in NY Times doesn’t say if it was a film or video) in his classroom at Merchant Marine Academy in New York the other day. After he turned the lights out, he said “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exits.” That’s it. That’s what he did. That is the entirety of the controversy.

Mr. Sullivan did not bilk thousands of people out of their retirement savings. He did not buy thousands of rounds of ammunition at a gun show, for no obvious purpose. He didn’t launch a failed war on a foreign country on the basis of falsified intelligence documents. He didn’t provide a legal justification for torture to the U.S. justice system. He did not pollute anyone’s drinking water or steal the oil under someone else’s property or destroy any wildlife habitat.

Now, just because someone did not do a number of enumerated things wrong does not mean that what he did was not wrong. I’m just curious about our public culture that destroys the careers of people like Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer while allowing the people responsible for the banking debacle to continue to make huge profits destroying other peoples’ livelihoods without consequence.

While somebody gets all hysterical about a lame joke like, “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exits.”

Professor Sullivan did not know that the father of one of his students died in Aurora in the attack by the orange-haired Mr. James Holmes. When he found out, he immediately apologized to the student.

So what’s the big freaking deal? Why are they now talking about firing this prof? For a single tasteless but inoffensive remark? What is offensive about the remark? It’s a lame joke, without the slightest overtones of anything that would be unduly offensive to any identifiable minority, except, maybe people with orange hair.

People need to get a life.

Jon Stewart’s Compromise

How anti-establishment, really, is Jon Stewart? He sounds independent. He seems to be authentic. He sounds like he thinks he is saying exactly what he thinks we think he thinks.

Then why the hell is there bleeping?

No, I don’t believe Jon Stewart is being naughty. Genuinely naughty people do not appear on Oprah, or host the Oscars. Genuinely naughty people don’t get tv shows, with the enormous costs underwritten by Time Warner, one of the most “established” media companies there is.

He is not exploding with righteous indignation, so overwhelmed that he must use the strongest word he can think of to express his outrage. No, he isn’t. If he was, there would be no bleep, because the bleep is not what most people think it is– it is not a network censor alertly snuffing an obscenity while monitoring a live broadcast. The bleep is done by an employee of Time Warner.

So you have to ask yourself, why doesn’t Time Warner simply tell Jon Stewart to stop using words that it has decided should not be allowed on television? Why not? Come on– think seriously about it. Forget the drama that plays every night on “The Daily Show” and consider the reality instead: why not? And why, if Jon Stewart has such high personal standards for honesty and integrity, does he allow them to do it? And since he allows them to do it and they keep doing it and he keeps doing it — isn’t what we have here actually a little “drama”? A shtick?

The idea Stewart wants to believe is that Stewart authentically wants to be himself but the deep, dark forces of repression prevent him.

I don’t believe he wants us to hear anything quite so much as the bleep itself, to imply that he is so naughty, so out-of-control free-spirited and independent, that he just says whatever he thinks, even if some weird authority– who is not stopping him from criticizing politicians– has to bleep it out. So, are we to believe that these authorities who are protecting our delicate moral fiber from being sullied by foul language, don’t care when he criticizes the government?

Or is the bleeping intended to give us an illusion? We are so cool because we listen to a guy who is so toxic to the government, that they have to bleep him? It doesn’t make any sense. The network (HBO, which is owned by Times Warner) pays Jon Stewart a lot of money to be on their tv show so they show him to as many people as possible and make lots of money selling advertiser dollars. If Stewart was really subversive or dangerous in any way, the government would express its displeasure to Times Warner’s Board of Directors (rich, anonymous bastards, who have dinners with politicians) and the Board of Directors would call in the producers and the producers would tell Jon Stewart not to go there.

If Stewart, like Bill Maher before him, decided to “take a stand”, don’t think for one second that Times Warner would hesitate to fire him. You think Jon Stewart’s too popular for them to do that? He’s not too popular to be bleeped. He’s not too popular to sit in that same seat night after night knowing full well he will get bleeped again and again.  He’s not too popular to consent to the bleep.

It makes me wonder what a real rebel would sound like. Probably something like Pete Seeger.

We know that. A real rebel says things like this: you can say what you want about the terrorists who crashed their planes into the twin towers but one thing you can’t call them is “cowardly”. A real rebel says that and the real rebel gets fired from a show that claimed to be “politically incorrect” .

It was a magical moment of transparency for television that nobody seemed to even notice. A television program billing itself as “politically incorrect” and ostensibly containing the free, independent expressions of opinion and ideas, was obviously a charade, a hoax, a fraud. The first time someone on the program expressed an opinion that was really at odds with the powers-that-be, the establishment shut him down. And barely anyone complained. They were too busy protesting Janet Jackson’s nipple.

So what’s the point of the show? Why did they bother to let it on the air if they were only going to shut it down if it ever actually was “politically incorrect”? Obviously, the point is to give the illusion to everyone that we have freedom of speech. We are free country. Nobody is telling you what to think.

So the fact that Jon Stewart is still on the air is somewhat distressing to me. It makes me suspect that Jon Stewart is on the air to convince the American public that they have been regularly exposed to the full range of intelligent opinion about serious matters social, economic, and political. All they have to do to exercise their freedom now is choose between, for example, John McCain, who wants to continue to use rendition to deal with suspected terrorists, continue to abridge the civil rights of all Americans, continue to use torture on the illegal prisoners, keep health care in the hands of private, for-profit insurers, and continue the war in Afghanistan, and Barack Obama, who wants to continue to use rendition to deal with suspected terrorists, continue to abridge the civil rights of all Americans, continue to use torture on the illegal prisoners, keep health care in the hands of private, for-profit insurers, and continue the war in Afghanistan.

I think most Americans don’t think the idea of consuming less, for example, is a serious opinion. Or the idea of self-restraint. Or putting part of your wages aside into a savings account. Or waiting until you have a legitimate down payment before buying a house. These are opinions even Jon Stewart will not express. It is one thing to attack them– the big banks, the Bush Administration– because everyone can still feel innocent. Attack the real cause of the economic meltdown– the utter credulousness of the American consumer along with his passionate greed– and you will be regarded, decisively, as politically incorrect.

In “Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Leonard Cohen”, Cohen is shown about to do a recording in a studio. A producer reminds him, just before they start, not to use any “dirty” words. Cohen, who is normally the most sanguine of poets, is briefly visibly annoyed, and says: There are no dirty words, ever.

Years later, Cohen bleeped himself in performances of “The Future” substituting “careless” for the word “anal” in this line:

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
And stuff it up the hole in your culture

Neo-Puritan Feminism

This is nauseating: a grade 4 teacher “married” one of his students at the end of the year, in a playful, mock, playground ceremony. What kind of deviant mind would regard this as sinister? Well, lots of them, as it turns out (though not a single one of the students or parents of the students).

Sometimes America seems to be in the throes of some kind of wave of neo-puritanical zeal. This is an unholy alliance between radical feminists, hard-right evangelical “Christians”, and small-minded middle-managers (the school principal– maybe– in this case). Look at the controversy over characters in Harry Potter consuming alcohol– we must protect our children from the idea that something profane could enter their bodies– unless it’s a Big Mac and a bag of Doritos and a gallon of coke.

Beware them all, but, Scrooge might say, beware more than anyone the middle-managers. They have the power to do harm because they glide to positions of power on the lubrication of risk-less conformity and perception management, but are incapable of thinking clearly for themselves, or deferring to those who do. They are the kind of people who believe in consultants, appoint committees, and spend voluminous amounts of time developing mission statements and strategic plans. They are terrified that their fundamental incompetency’s will be revealed, so they take refuge in process and strategy and consensus and “current thinking”. These are the people who burn witches, and then, a decade later, when the consensus changes, pay them off and apologize. And then erect monuments to the witch-burners, to keep everyone happy.