Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Question of Morality

My father is the only person in my family who attends church on a regular basis. My mother raised my brother and I single parent style, and though she sent both of us to parochial school for several years, she never took us to church. Not even on Christmas Eve. I have never asked her if there was a God, or had an extensive conversation about religion with her. It just never really came up. We celebrated all the secular holidays, and prayed over meals with the extended family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s religion in my family. We pray together twice a year, and what we do the other 363 days a year is our own business and not really discussed. And you know what? I don't feel like I really missed out on anything.

My little brother and I were never close growing up. We barely even spoke until he was well into high school. The only time we ever got along was when we played video games, or when I needed to borrow his Batman or Jurassic Park figures to escort my dolls to the prom or the mall or the beach house or whatever I was playing with that year.

Though my mother and I have never had a religious discussion, I’m almost convinced she’s a Deist. She believes in God alright, but she let us figure it out for ourselves. She raised us to be smart, to ask questions. Although my brother spent more time in parochial school than I did (we got taken out when I was in middle school and he was in elementary school, but he was sent back to finish high school) and we barely talked growing up, when we grew up, we had the conversation neither of us really had with our parents. We talked about our thoughts on weather God existed and if so, why does a Loving God allow so much cruelty in the world. I was amazed to discover that in spite of the fact that we barely talked when we were growing up, we came to the exact same conclusion about Life and the Universe. We both go to church when we feel the need to (I go on Christmas Eve, he goes with his friends). We have both independently done extensive reading on comparative religion and are fascinated by why people believe what they do, but we’re both Agnostic.

I offer this history because the religious right has a habit of connecting Religion and Morality, that without Religion (and only the True Religion, I might add), it is impossible to be a moral person. I hardly know where to begin on this one.

As I’ve stated, my brother and I were not raised in a religious home, but we were raised with good morals, the likes of which even the religious right would approve. Things like being kind to others and helping others who need it. To work hard and share the wealth when we could. There are things in life that are much more important than money, like love and friendship. Torture is wrong. Racism is wrong. Abortion should be safe, rare, and legal. Treat your elders with respect. War should be the very last resort. To fight for what we believe in, and fight for people who can’t fight for themselves. To form arguments based on intelligence and facts. Most importantly, we should offer our opinions, but what other people believe is their own business.

If I ever have children, that is exactly the kind of moral education they will receive. It is my greatest wish for those imaginary children to grow up to be reasonable, responsible, intelligent adults who will arrive at their own conclusions about Life and the Universe the same way my brother and I did-by endless questions and extensive reading. I will add one more tenant to philosophy by which I was raised, one I think my mother would wholeheartedly approve: No set of morals is better than another, that we were given free will and thus the ability to make life decisions for ourselves.

Some of the most immoral people you read about these days are the religious, right-wing fucks like, oh I donno, pick one. Jim Bakker.

Mr. Bakker, how moral is it to steal money from your parishiners and put it into your pocket? According to Wikipedia, you and Tammy Faye divorced in 1992. Divorce isn't very moral, sir.

Marriage should be once and forever, till death do you part. Your church believes that, and I'll tell you a secret: So do I.

What was it Jesus said? "Let you who is without sin cast the first stone."

Religion and morals are not mutually exclusive. The moral majority is bullshit.

Jesus, who you claim as your savior, would tell you to love your fellow humans. To not lie. Or steal. Or cheat. Or divorce your spouse. Or murder. "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Remember that one? I do.

I like your Jesus, Christians. I do. I like him very much. But I don't like the way some of you twisted his words.

And I'm pretty sure he wouldn't, either.

Then again, what do I know?

I'm just another immoral non-believer that you would condemn to hell. But I'll bet you a batch of brownies I have more morals than some of those right-wing fucks who trot out the name of God every five minutes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Love Me, I'm a Liberal

I mentioned this song in my last post. It was written by a guy called Phil Ochs that has been rewritten by people like The Dead Kennedys, Evan Greer, and some people on youtube. Well, I thought it was my turn.

If you haven't heard the original yet, I suggest you listen to that first, so you get the tune in your head.

* * *

I cried when Bush mangled Katrina
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when OJ wasn't guilty
Where was justice for that crime?
But Michael Vick got what was coming
His fame couldn't save him this time

So love me, love me, love me
I'm a liberal

I go to pro-choice rallies
All the immigrants don't bother me
I love Stewart, Colbert, and Bill Clinton
And I want the environment clean
But don't talk to me about health care
I just think it all should be free


I couldn't wait till Obama took office
The end of eight miserable years
I'm glad that the Democrats took congress
There's finally a reason to cheer
But don't talk about catching bin Laden
They almost came close once I hear


All the people who voted Bush-Chaney
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can't understand how it happened twice
What's the matter don't they know they're to blame?
And though I still respect him,
I'm not gonna vote for McCain


Yes I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac
I wish they would legalize pot
I've memorized Ginsberg's "America"
His lesson I think we've forgot
If it's treason to speak truth to power
I can't wait till I get caught


I want all the gays to get married
I've always protested the war
I own Phil Ochs records on vinyl
I'm still pissed I couldn't vote for Gore
Yes, I'll sign your goddamn petition
If it gets you away from my door


Sure I might be young and impulsive
I wear every concievable pin
Even go to socialist meetings
I've learned all the old union hymns
But when I grow older and wiser
That's when I'll turn myself in


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Top Ten Protest Songs", My Ass

The Virgin Media website just posted their list of the "Top Ten Protest Songs". My initial reaction was one of healthy skepticism, as people who post these things tend to not know anything about which they're writing. I was not surprised to find I was correct. Clearly these people have never heard a protest song in their lives, so I felt the need to educate the masses.

Phil Ochs defined a protest song as, "A song you don't hear on the radio. And they'll say you don't hear it on the radio because the guy can't sing or because the words are no good."

The truth is, most of the protest songs that I've heard have had some damn good lyrics that denounce war, promote peace and environmentalist action, and talk about the dangers of conformity and group-think.

A great deal of the novel I'm writing takes place in Chicago of the late 1960s. This is the kind of music my characters would have listened to, so to get myself in that mindset, I've been listening to an awful lot of protest music. This means, of course, I've been listening to the Beatles, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger. The title of my novel is a line in a Phil Ochs song.

I knew that surely a list by a major label would have someone on their staff who knew enough about the history of protest songs to have at least a few I had heard before. Boy, was I wrong. Though I agree with one of their choices (Green Day-American Idiot), I was scratching my head at the other choices.

Rather than go through their list and tear it apart, I'm going to post my own list of the best protest songs (that I know of, right now). With the exception of the first entry, this list is in no way in any kind of order. It is also incomplete, as I have not heard every protest song ever written, though I would not be opposed to the idea.

Phil Ochs also said, "A protest song is a song that's so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit." Many of the protest songs I love the most are the stories of unsung heroes in the struggle for equal rights and an end to war. As I listen to songs like "Too Many Martyrs" or "The Ballad of Emmitt Till", I remember Black History Month in school, and wonder if I had heard these stories before.

These are stories of men who died because they believed everyone should have the right to vote regardless of the color of their skin (Medger Evers), and men who died because they were dared to flirt with a white woman (Emmitt Till). I have a pretty good memory for history, and I don't recall ever having heard of either of these men before I started investingating the topical songs of the time. It's good to talk about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luthor King Jr., and Malcom X, but let's put a human name on these crimes. Let's tell stories of ordinary men and women like Evers and Till.

So without further ramblings by yours truly, here is my list of what should be the "Top Ten Protest Songs":

1. We Shall Overcome - Pete Seeger

If you have ever seen archival footage from virtually any protest march in the 1960s, you've heard this song. This became the hymn of the anti-war marches, the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Same on you, Virgin Media, for not recognizing this anthem of the tumultuous 1960s.

2. I Ain't Marchin' Anymore - Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs called this a "turning away song". Turning away from unnecessary violence, turning away from war, and essentially saying, "dude, enough is enough already". Ochs gives us a brief history of wars that the United States has been involved in, by speaking though the experience of a soldier. He's telling us that we've been in too many wars, and, "look at all we've won with a saber and a gun, tell me, was it worth it all?" The answer, he says, is no.

3. Here's to the State of Mississippi - Phil Ochs

A lovely ballad commenting on the the deeply rooted racism in Mississippi. Phil Ochs re-wrote the lyrics to this song in the early 70s, titled "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon". The lyrics were about the Watergate scandal. A few years ago, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam reworked the lyrics to rant about the Bush Administration.

4. Outside a Small Circle of Friends - Phil Ochs

This song has some of the most clever lyrics in a protest song I've heard. It talks of the apathy of the people of the time. The first verse is about the 1964 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese. Thirty-eight people witnessed the crime, thirty-eight people watched her die, and no one called the police until it was much too late. In psychology classes, her case is often used as the textbook example of the Bystander Effect: The more people who witness a crime, the less likely anyone is to report it, because "someone else will do it".

5. Too Many Martyrs - Phil Ochs

This is the story of Medger Evers, a black man who was murdered for registering other black men to vote. He was murdered by a member of the KKK in 1955. It wasn't until a new trial presenting new evidence was able to bring his murderer to justice, in 1994. He died in prison in 2001.

6. The Death of Emmitt Till - Bob Dylan

This is the story of Emmitt Till, a fourteen year old boy who was dared by his friends to flirt with a white woman. He was murdered in 1955. The men who killed him were never brought to justice.

7. American Idiot - Green Day

Okay, here it is. I spent a lot of Bush's first term in office pissed off because I would have voted for Gore in Florida, but I was seventeen years old in the year 2000. Then one day in 2004, a single came out. This single broke through the rage I had felt for four years, the rage I felt so strongly was articulated brilliantly, perfectly, in this one song, and later, I discovered it ran through the entire album. Sadness over the tragedy of September 11th. But American Idiot was different than Wake Me Up When September Ends. American Idiot showed people, people like me who felt helpless and alone in her views about the war, that we weren't alone. This was 2004. The people who were speaking up were the few and the brave. It wasn't until 2006 that the tide started turning against the Bush Administration's clusterfuck of horrors and people started paying attention. American Idiot made a lot of us say, "The world is fucked up, I'm not alone in knowing so, let's fucking do something about it." And four years later, we were finally able to put a man in office that actually speaks in full, coherent sentences.

8. Give Peace a Chance - John Lennon

This is another song that I was surprised to see absent from this list. Shame on you, Virgin Media.

9. Little Boxes - Pete Seeger

Chances are, you know this song because it's the theme song of the TV show Weeds. It talks about the dangers of conformity and group-think that happened in the United States between World War II and Korea.

10. Power and the Glory - Phil Ochs

Let's be honest-98% of patriotic music is cheesy crap. No one wants to listen to it on a regular basis because, well, 98% of it is cheesy crap. I could listen to this song every day. I do listen to it every day, when I write. I might be listening to it right now. I will devote a later post to why I think it should be the new national anthem, but I think that's a pretty good reason right there. It's listenable all year long, and not just while watching fireworks on the fourth of July.

But if I may...

I think it says a lot, that this man, this tortured songwriter who wanted to use his music to raise awareness and end the war, end violence against women, end racism, who saw so much hatred, violence, and war in this country during his brief life, could write THIS song. He's inviting the listener to take a look around and see that yes, we have a lot of problems in this country. War, violence against women and children, women who were murdered while thirty-eight people watched, racism, homophobia, corruption on all levels of government, and the lack of respect for your fellow humans. But he asks us to look around and see that the mountains in North Carolina are beautiful. The deserts out west are beautiful. The cities are beautiful. He begs us to see that there is enough good, there is enough beauty to want to preserve it, to fix it, to make it better for a new generation.

That, my friends, is what a protest song is.

I encourage you to take a look at some of these songs. All of these songs. Play them in your car, play them on your guitar, play them when you're getting high with your friends.

That's my soap box for today, kids. Support the Revolution and your local microwbrewery.