TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2022
Our blue tribe's scripts today: In recent weeks, we've often thought of the gloomy ending to Paul Simon's widely-acclaimed album, Graceland.
The album appeared in 1986. It interwove two storylines.
The dominant story concerned the way the people of the world were coming to see their essential similarity through the spread of "world music." Simon's album was, of course, part of that phenomenon.
The secondary story on the album seems to concern the failure of Simon's first two marriages.
In Graceland, the album's second song, Simon sings thusly: "My traveling companion in 9 years old, he's the child of my first marriage."
Simon and the child are trying to reach Elvis Presley's iconic home—and a metaphorical graceland as well. In the album's penultimate song, That Was Your Mother, the singer provides this child with a great gift—he describes the scene when the child's mother and father first set eyes on each other.
In the song's fictionalized telling, the child's mother and father meet in New Orleans, one of the places where the world's music entered the North American land mass. As they meet, Simon is "standing in the shadow of Clifton Chenier, king of the bayou"—but also, king of one of the musical traditions which arose in that location.
The album presents an ironic interplay of the singer's reflections on these simultaneous, interwoven themes and events. In its final song, The Myth of Fingerprints, the album ends with a downbeat reflection on a particular type of counter-productive human impulse, our drive toward individuation.
The album's final lyric goes like this:
"That's way we must learn to live alone."
At least on the individual level, we're strongly inclined to tear ourselves apart—or at least, so Simon said. Within the album's wider context, that remains true even as we come to see and appreciate our vast global similarities as one human species.
(Joseph's life was lived "Under African Skies"—but, within that very song, it's mirrored by Linda Ronstadt's!)
We've often thought of that album's downbeat final lyric in recent weeks and months. That lyric tends to pop into our heads when we see our own blue tribe insist on finding ways to perform the prehistoric task of otherization.
It's an ancient human impulse, one we humans can't seem to quit. Our blue tribe keeps performing this function as we recite our tribe's sacred scripts.
We thought of that line as we read the gloomy, newly mandated headline in the Washington Post this weekend:
These Native Americans focus on family amid Thanksgiving’s dark history
As a matter of tribal loyalty, we're now expected to focus on that (extremely old) "dark history." For background, see yesterday's report.
We also thought of that downbeat line when we read Professor Chute's new essay in The Atlantic:
WHY MAUS WAS BANNED
What makes the book controversial is exactly what makes it valuable.
Professor Chute is very high end, and she's an expert on comics. As such, she'd be easy to parody, whether her work would actually deserve such treatment or not.
She herself may be inclined to parody / stereotype Others. Almost a whole year later, she's still insisting on this:
CHUTE (11/21/22): It’s true that Spiegelman “speaks”—and draws—the unspeakable in Maus. In black line art, it presents two narratives: the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States in 1951 with his wife, Anja, also a survivor, and their toddler, Art—and the story of the cartoonist son, as an adult, soliciting his father’s testimony. It is taught routinely in high school, college, and graduate school. It is, in addition, taught to many middle-school students. This came to wide attention this past January, when Maus was banned from an eighth-grade English-language-arts curriculum by the McMinn County, Tennessee, school board. The ban became a global news story; Maus sold out on Amazon.
But the ban didn’t surprise me. A new wave of politically driven censorship, particularly one motivated by a discomfort with discussions of America’s history of slavery, has grown in the Trump and post-Trump years. And Maus’s frank visual depiction of horrors, the way it acts as a form of witness to dehumanization and genocide, is controversial. Of course, that confrontation with horror is exactly what makes it valuable.
When the book emerged as a fresh target in the culture wars this year, the school board’s official, and flimsy, reasons for removing it from the curriculum amplified the outrage. The board cited bad language (such as “bitch” and “goddamn”) and nudity (specifically, one small image of Spiegelman’s mother, drawn in human form, in the bathtub after taking her own life, a profoundly troubling visual on which to pin the charge of obscenity). These aspects, while perhaps not ideal for an eighth-grade audience, feel beside the point in a narrative that bears witness to genocide.
Also yesterday, we thought of the Graceland album's closing line when we read an instant opinion column in the Washington Post.
Why would someone enter a bar and kill five people? Scripted within an inch of his life, Brian Broome instantly knew:
The Colorado massacre cannot be blamed on mental illness. It’s rooted in hate.
So read the headline on the column. In the actual column, the columnist offered this:
BROOME (11/21/22): You know who will get the blame for Colorado Springs, right? Each time these things happen, the right-wing go-to is to blame “mental illness.” That’s what some thought drove Robert Bowers to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh to kill 11 human beings. That’s what others believed made Dylann Roof stroll into a Black church in Charleston, S.C., to murder nine human beings. And, sooner or later, conservatives will say it was “mental illness” that drove this newest killer of the marginalized to commit the latest atrocity.
But are we ever going to ask why so many supposedly mentally ill people seem to carry right-wing talking points along with their AR-15s?
The Others keep blaming mental illness at such moments. As a result, people within our own blue tribe must insist that mental illness can't be the cause of such events.
The real cause has to be hate—but can hate be rooted in mental illness? Please don't ask us questions like that when we're shouting our sacred scripts!
(Also, please don't publish medical specialists. Publish script-readers like Broome!)
The Post's report about Thanksgiving involves a new mandated script. There's more to discuss within that report, which was written by a good, decent person who's six months out of college.
Tomorrow, we may be able to return to that new mandated script. For today, we'll only say this—the report seemed to provide glimmers and intimations of "why we must live alone."
Along the way, these instant script-readings remind us of two of Kevin Drum's recent points. Why do centrist voters drift away from our tribe's wise advice?
They don't like the way we ape those professors, and they don't like the way we call everyone else certain types of names!
Tomorrow: A holiday's "dark" script