Archive | February 2012

The State of the States.

So here we are in 2012 .The dawning of a new year, with new hopes – of those privileged enough to have any – as well as old being projected into the next 12 month period. We all witnessed great change and upheaval in the world in the last few years, particularly regarding the world wide fiscal crisis, but it also seems there are more sinister changes afoot. I turn your attention to the USA where the Republicans – while simultaneously grinding Obama’s administration to a halt in the immediate – are deciding on who will run against Obama in the next Presidential election. I won’t get drawn into the incredible bunch of candidates that are running for their chance to, in many cases, begin a theocracy of sorts in the country and how most are clearly not of rational mind when evolution is cavalierly resigned to the dustbin of mere opinion and conjecture despite ground breaking research by evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski which has categorically shown that evolution can be observed and repeated on a micro level. No. The calibre of the political candidates in the USA is not the primary focus here, although arguably they are a reflection, and in many cases the source, of the wider problems facing the country.

The sinister changes occurring in the USA at present all revolve around freedom. That word. Freedom. It has over the years been synonymous with the USA. America, the land of the free and the self appointed liberators of the oppressed. This freedom of course ranges from the right to bear arms to the right to free speech. This country proudly boasts of these intrinsic freedoms afforded to their citizens. However, it is becoming clear that, to paraphrase a song writing great, times they are changing, and not for the better as the sentiment originally intended.

Do you remember going to school? The abject boredom of some classes, the joy of others, the various ups and downs, the crushes on peers, making new friends, the police presence? I think most people reading this will identify with everything except the last point. It seems in some parts of the USA that police are routinely walking the corridors of schools enforcing law and order. Where would the Americans of today be without the brave men and women putting their life on the line by stopping a young girl from spraying perfume on herself in class as a result of being bullied about smelling badly? If it wasn’t for these brave souls such menaces would have gone on executing their evil doing with immunity and would never have ended up in court. I recommend reading the article linked which makes it clear how the basic freedom of being a child and acting like one – making mistakes included – is forcefully being removed from schools. This could of course be seen as limited in its scope, after-all it is largely a problem within Texas and everybody knows that things are done… differently in Texas. This doesn’t effect the nation as a whole and, hopefully, is unlikely to. Fair point. Well, what about the insightful and progressive new law that Obama promised he’d veto but went ahead and signed anyway? I am of course speaking of the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA).

This new law affords powers to the military to arrest a foreigner and detain them indefinitely without trial. It, at face value, may seem reasonable. If someone is suspected of being a terrorist or aiding terrorism then they are fair game for being subjected to the enforcement of this law. It’s only when you realise that offences such as committing a “belligerent act” against the USA or its allies also makes you a valid candidate for indefinite imprisonment and first class care that the military is known to provide. I would be curious to know what the exact definition of a ‘belligerent act’ is in this context. As it is it appears to be conveniently broad.

It is quite clear that terrorism is the new communism – where by merely being branded a terrorist is enough justification to persecute a person, there are many examples of activists being labelled terrorists for example – but with one distinct advantage. Whereas communism was promoted as a threat to a way of life by the propaganda machine, terrorism is a threat to life itself. ‘Allow us to do what we want or you will die at the hands of big scary terrorists’. Essentially the USA finds itself in the situation where, let’s face it, if you piss off the wrong people you’re going to disappear into the ether of indefinite and secretive detention. It’s quite ironic how on his election ticket Obama promised to close down Camp X-Ray – which he failed to do – where indefinite detention without trial was the order of the day and now he’s signed this new bill into law. Is anyone disillusioned and disappointed in the political system of the world even more so now? I for one regret ever hoping he got into office.

As if the NDAA was not enough the censorship of information itself is the next threat from the powers that be. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) made headlines recently. These bills were modelled on censorship trailblazers such as China. They were being promoted as a means to block internet content that facilitates or promotes piracy. Again, this seems reasonable until looked at closely. The only problem is, as many commentators have pointed out, that they would be all too easy to abuse and since it is essentially for big corporation it is very likely it will be abused. I point you towards the case of Megaupload being wrongly censored by UMG on YouTube (before said company was taken offline completely). One potential risk is that in a comment section of a website if someone was to post a link to illegal pirate content then the site hosting the link would itself be at risk. You see where this could take us? There are many other issues highlighting why SOPA/PIPA are a danger to freedom of information and I’d urge all to read up on it. Essentially it means that if a US government was determined enough it could bring down ANY website it saw fit. All it has to do is meet the broad criteria of the SOPA/PIPA bills. Imagine what power that could afford the rulers in a country, say, where a popular uprising was occurring. As it stands, after a virtual revolt by Internet users, SOPA/PIPA appears to have fallen at the last hurdle and appears to be in hibernation, for now.

The USA today is not recognisable as the pinnacle of freedom it once was to many. Its own constitution is not worth the paper it is written on. While there are people in power bemoaning the treatment of prisoners held indefinitely elsewhere while allowing it in their own country, and while these same people criticise the likes of China for heavily censoring the Internet while simultaneously putting into place the mechanisms where just that could conceivably happen in their own country you have ask, who do they think they are kidding? As well as, what the hell is going on? It looks like the USA is changing for the worse. It all seems so dream like, surreal. Once NDAA was signed into law the USA crossed a line – indefinite detention is no longer confined to foreign soil – and there is a real risk that line may not be uncrossed without some terrible consequences for the nation first.

Oh and other countries that allow indefinite detention without trial? Shining examples of human rights abuses that are China, North Korea, Cuba (how could we forget) and Myanmar. Go a little further back into history and the likes of Stalin and Hitler’s regimes also come to mind. Who’d have thought Obama’s administration would have so much in common with such fine states and historical figures? I wish the hopes of the citizens of the land of the free are realised and that 2012 brings with it some perspective for this once great nation. If not, the USA as we once knew it may remain a distant memory. I wonder how long it will take for someone in a position of influence to convince citizens that the NDAA should be amended to allow for the indefinite detention of US citizens? This would have been unthinkable only a few short years ago but it doesn’t seem to be so outlandish an idea anymore. McCarthyism seems to be making an unwelcome comeback.

Of course the greatest fear of the changes in the USA is that they may not be isolated to that country and other Western governments may adopt similar policies. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is an international equivalent to SOPA/PIPA and Europe seems keen to pass this into law alongside the USA and others. Perhaps it is unfair to single out the USA. Perhaps it is the West as a whole whose future freedoms are at a crossroads. That said, the USA has always been a symbol of what it meant to be free. It inspired the French, the Irish and many others to throw off the shackles of unwanted rule. It has inspired the downtrodden to want more, to believe there was more to be had. However, I posit that this is rapidly changing and the USA is increasingly being looked at by other Western nations as a deteriorating nation with no obvious way back from the brink. It is worth remembering the words of one of the celebrated citizens of this once great nation, Benjamin Franklin, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”. To expand upon that thought, it is arguable that giving up essential liberty will lead to neither liberty nor safety but something all together unforeseen.

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Shared experience

My partner, as part of her masters, recently had to put together a presentation about the music in her life. The role it plays and played during her brief sojourn in this plane of existence. She loves music and is in possession of a wonderfully smooth jazz voice of her own. Although the very thought of giving a talk about her music terrified her. She is never that comfortable with public speaking (yet is a natural) and suffers from a baffling inferiority complex when it comes to college. I on the other hand was positively salivating at the prospect of pontificating for half an hour to a captive audience on the music I love, why I love it, how important it is and why their lives are lacking for having not experienced it on the multiple levels that I have. Okay, maybe not in such pompous terms.

I would even have gone to the lengths of picking the particular song that would be used to drown me out if I had gone over time à la some blubbering Hollywood star’s acceptance speech. On reflection that is probably comparable to the level of delusion I would suffer from given a forum to rabbit on about music and get marks for it. (It’s Jimmy Cliff – The bigger they come the harder they fall)

Growing up in rural Ireland during the eighties and early nineties my sources for music were limited to the radio and whatever my brothers had been listening to. I remember being impressed by Michael Jackson from a young age and I think Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer was the first music video that ever stuck with me; it is still one of my favourites. I recall playing guitar/tennis racket to “Walk this Way” and having a merciful short interest in Metal which I have fully recovered from. There were a few Smiths records knocking around the house which I wasn’t that keen on back then but have since come around to the genius of Morrissey/Marr.

I do remember one day in 1991, my eldest brother arrived back from college in Cork with a 12 inch under his arm, it was a record just to be clear and what follow changed what I thought of music for the rest of my life. Before this moment I had enjoyed music and listened to and enjoyed whatever was knocking about at that time. Apparently as a youngster I would run around the house singing Diana Ross’ Locomotion and it was thought (feared) that a career in “musical theatre” lay ahead of me. On this afternoon however what came through the ceiling from my brothers’ room was like nothing I had ever heard before. Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” had lyrics that were incomprehensible and expressed pain and despair which was equally incomprehensible to my 10 year old mind but it struck a note with me on some level. That was it then I consumed everything I could on the band and the bands that influenced them. Thanks to my brother this was as easy as copying all of his music. Possibly the one great thing about discovering a band or a sound is that it introduces you to a world that you never knew existed before. From Nirvana I stumbled on to Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Mercury Rev and Pavement to name a few. These are bands whose albums I regularly stomp around town listening to.

It was set in stone what teenage tribe I belonged to. Long hair, chequered shirt, military jacket, ripped jeans and an altogether surly disposition was the order of the day. “But you don’t understand” was a popular refrain. Ravers: they were the enemy with their Joe Bloggs baggy jeans and Tommy Hilfiger padded jackets, listening to music produced by machines if they didn’t have the core drummer, bass and guitar I was not interested. But then all that changed.

It wasn’t until my brother gave me Leftism by Leftfield that I opened my mind to dance music. Released in 1995 it is an amazing album, it really was a visceral experience the first time I heard it and  this widening of my musical tastes saw me drift from indie rooms in nightclubs to purely dance clubs and all the shenanigans that went with them. I dabbled a little on decks but without the resolve or the attention span to excel at it I left to my more capable friends. Leftism was very much a gateway album and I consumed the many sub genres of electronic music as they sprung up like mushrooms. I had crossed over to the dark side, my younger teen self would have sneered at this version of me and my love of electronic music was only matched by my love of increasingly outlandishly baggy clothing. I recently saw a picture of myself at the superb Homelands dance festival in 1999 wearing trousers that could conceivably clothe a family of four. All copies have since been destroyed. That was a golden time for dance music in Ireland I went to several excellent festivals which belied the reputation of dance music being just for people on drugs and attracting a rough and dangerous crowd. Mind you I did attend Creamfields and that was as rough as a badgers arse. Again dance music opened up a world I’d previously never felt the need to explore and that was Hip Hop.

I guess in a list of best albums I have ever bought this particular album wouldn’t finish particularly high but it is an album that I will associate with a couple of really fun years in my life and also it is an album which I introduced a lot of people to. I am personally responsible for the sales of at least 9 copies of Jurassic 5 by Jurassic 5, which might not sound like a lot but in Ireland that’ll get you a top 20 hit. I first heard a drum n bass remix of Concrete Schoolyard played by Little Boy Flan in Costello’s in Limerick and fell in love with its infectious melody. I immediately found out who it was and ran out to buy the album. An old school mix of funk and jazz with some wonderful wordplay by its 4 MCs it is an album which has never aged, and surely that is the test of a classic. It is an album I will always associated with living in Dublin in my early twenties where I shared a house in Drumcondra with people from far flung places like South Africa, Germany and Achill Island. Great parties and clubs with great people in that flat in particular, it was a summer to remember and that album provided a sound track for it. I met one of those flat mates a few years later when she returned to Ireland and I asked her what brought her back, she said, it was that album.

That’s a lie, she wanted to recreate that summer. We both knew she was on a hiding to nothing but it’s a reflection of what a great time it was in our lives and I guess that is one of the reasons that Jurassic 5 has a special place in my heart. The next album on this trip down nostalgia lane and what is rapidly turning into an episode of desert island discs, is associated with one of the greatest live performances I have ever witnessed and a time in my life when I wasn’t in a particularly good place.

Arcade Fire released Funeral in 2005 and I instantly fell in love with the album but it wasn’t until I saw them live at the Electric Picnic later that year that how great this band really hit home. It was as close as this atheist could ever be to having a religious experience. I spent the rest of the weekend telling people who did not see them that they had wasted their weekend. What an arse, I know.

This is another album that I shared with many friends, giving it as Christmas and birthday presents on several occasions. At this stage in my life I had returned to work in Limerick, the circle of friends I had in Dublin had moved on to foreign climes and I was working in a warehouse. There were a few bright spots but for the most parts it was a grinding monotony. The same faces saying the same crap every day, I spent most of the time in a hazy bubble. I was not a happy camper with myself or my life but this album was a beacon that would never fail to take me away. A classic in the true sense of the word, I first saw the video for Lights Out on MTV, an animated effort where little terrors in Santa hats run riot in a Dickensian industrial complex, and was struck by the power and energy of the music. I still light up and sing up, much to my partner’s protestations, every time the shuffle throws them up. I am I a much happier place I my life now with someone I can envision spending the rest of my life with.

One of the things that I am really looking forward to in life is sharing a love of music with my kids. They say one of the greatest things in life is a shared experience and for me that is one of the greatest things about music. It has an ability to both connect with people and to connect people. I enjoy nothing more than hearing some new music whether it is the next bright things that look barely old enough to be let out at night or discovering that, hey I actually really like Hank Williams. I could have prattled on for a few more thousand words on this topic but I think I have made my point, whether it’s good times or bad everyone needs a soundtrack.