Revel in the Differences

I have noticed that it seems almost impossible for us to view the medieval period on its own terms. We work this out for almost any other civilization. The period has come under attack in two separate eras, from two different directions. First, we had the period from the late Renaissance through perhaps the end of the Cold War. This attack took the form of 1) Reason instead of “superstition,” and 2) Science over faith, and the like.* Today we see a neo-pagan revival, which has its manifestations in areas of culture such as Bronze Age Pervert, The Northmen, Bernard Cornwall/Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, and The Legend of Redbad. The basic theme of all of them centers around the strong reality of the pagan gods and practices, and the cruelty, venality, femininity and emptiness of Christianity.**

I think a variety of reasons exist for this critique. As I wrote here, one of them involves the idea of the awkward uncle vs. the stranger at Thanksgiving. Maybe your mom invites someone you don’t know to Thanksgiving dinner, a friend or co-worker. They may be great or interesting people, or not. Either way, it matters little. They are not “family,” so they inspire little emotional reaction. Having no attachments to us, we have no stake in how they act. But many of us have encountered the “crazy,” awkward Great Uncle. He’s family, so he gets an invitation, though some groan at the prospect. Maybe his mannerisms or his comments alienate people around him.

The unexpected guest might act obnoxiously as well, but the uncle inspires a much stronger reaction because of his family connection. Most people think he’s annoying and crazy. But maybe a few people think, “No–he’s the sane one–the rest of my family is crazy. Uncle Bill is great!” Those that love Uncle Bill, they tend to love the Middle Ages when they meet.

We have a strange connection to the Middle Ages. They are not nuclear family to us, but neither are they someone’s friend from work who shows up randomly. They are the Great Uncle. We can view civilizations like that of Egypt and China as a new guest at dinner. Showing hospitality to strangers has a universal history. But the awkward family member, i.e., the Middle Ages, gets a different treatment. We can argue and get mad at family, or passionately defend them. We wouldn’t do this with a guest. Some, for example, who seek to appreciate and praise the medievals get called fascists on Twitter. It’s Twitter, sure, but even on Twitter no one would call those who love ancient Chines or Meso-American civilization fascists.

Modern politics in the U.S. today has this same problem. True–many can see something recognizably American about both the guy in the loud oversized pickup with accompanying gun rack, and in the guy drinking a latte admiring the art in the Guggenheim. But . . . very likely neither of the two subjects in question will see this about the other. The Red State guy knows the Blue State guy is technically American, but he looks weird, and that’s unnerving, off-putting, bizarre. It inspires a gut-level horror reactions for both sides. As we have stopped mixing with each other, as technology and other factors allow us to narrow our scope, our fellow Americans increasingly look like the weird Great Uncle at Thanksgiving, though the Red and Blue guy would both show perfect politeness to a guest from Japan.

Jean Francois Revel was a French intellectual who pulled off the unusual feat of liking and defending America during the Cold War. He wrote How Democracies Perish not so much to praise America, however, but to express outrage and incredulity at other European intellectuals and politicians. Much of the book shows how the European press, and European governments, tended to commit a kind of suicide by showing much more suspicion, and less trust overall, to the Americans instead of the Soviets. He cites numerous examples of this with various press releases and newspaper articles regarding different aspects of Soviet and American actions. He compares European treatment of America’s involvement in Vietnam (quite harsh), with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which many other Europeans of Revel’s class described as regrettable, but an understandable reaction against American ambition and aggression. He shows how the European press soft-pedaled the Cambodian genocide, but jumped down the throats of America when we failed to cooperate fully (according to the journalists, at least) with the Soviets on missile reduction.

Smart, sarcastic, old, Frenchies always provide a certain pleasure. Revel delivers the goods. But I think he misses something in the explanation of why this happened, and fails to expound on perhaps his most pertinent and brilliant insight.

As to what he misses in his explanation for Europeans’ attitude towards America, I present the ‘Uncle at Thanksgiving Dinner’ theory. We Americans come off as boorish, too loud, too simple, too whatever for many European sensibilities. But, we’re also clearly a chip off the old block. So that means that we come in for more criticism than those outside the family. Russia, China, Cambodia, . . . they have never been family to Europeans.^ This covers things only partially, I admit, but Revel looks almost entirely at the facts of the difference and mostly leaves off the reasons for it.

Revel’s best insight comes in the beginning of the book. He writes,

Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is working to destroy it.

. . . It follows that a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does and thinks will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself when its existence is threatened. Drilling into a civilization that it deserved defending only if it can incarnate absolute justice is tantamount to urging that it let itself die or be enslaved.

This condition has not always existed in America in Europe. But it did seem to grow as we grew more democratic.

Athens after Marathon in 490 B.C. started to show supreme confidence in itself. We see this in a variety of ways, in its literature, its innovations, etc. and this manifested itself in increasing democratic reform. On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, Athens went to war over what many would consider a trifle with the Megaran Decree, over the perception of whether or not they had bowed to Sparta or not. I’m not sure the Greeks would have thought this a trifle, but the point stands. They had great confidence and a thin skin.

Athens lost that war, but a curious thing happened. Their defeat ultimately failed to slow the progress of democracy. Athens may have been more democratic in 350 B.C. than in 450 B.C. I believe that much of the same trappings of democracy existed as in the Periclean era, but the aristocratic tradition which had moderated democracy, giving them an alternate framework to use (as well as the thin skin of the aristocrat) had no more presence. Phillip of Macedon in the 340’s B.C. provoked Athens just as much if not more than the Spartans in 430’s. Yet the Athenians responded much more tamely, much more “politely,” to Phillip than they ever did to Sparta.

Many might point to Athens’ great material prosperity, and then argue that this made them soft. Victor Davis Hanson I believe makes this argument in his book about the Peloponnesian War. This can explain some things, but not the whole picture. Athens had a great deal of wealth in the 430’s, perhaps more proportional wealth vis a vis other city-states than in later decades. This wealth gave no hindrance to their supreme confidence and a bullish imperialism. Likewise, England’s wealth ca. 1880 did nothing to curb their global dominance.

We may miss the fact that Athens’ democratic ethos had grown stronger since the advent of the Peloponnesian War. I believe that the technical Periclean structure had not changed much, i.e., they still had the same voting rights, jury pay, and so on. But they had “addition by subtraction”–the gilding of an aristocratic ethos that still lingered in the 5th century gave Athens an alternate framework to think with. It also gave them the confidence–and thinner skin–associated with aristocracies. But by 350 B.C., that aspect of Athenian life had departed, leaving them with an unvarnished democratic ethos.

Revel points out multiple examples of the following dynamic in Europe, which mirror that of Athens in the 4th century B.C.:

  • Europeans declare that NATO should avoid unduly antagonizing the Soviets
  • The Soviets do something antagonizing, such as clamp down on Poland, or invade Afghanistan
  • Europeans insist on a muted response, to avoid antagonizing the USSR any further.

This leads, naturally enough, to a weak foreign policy. Finding explanations in grand cultural and geo-political terms has great value. But I prefer bring issues into a smaller more human lens. With this above dynamic, the Europeans practice a kind of excessive politeness.

This is also pretty good.

Good manners should produce magnanimity and humility for those who practice them, and a deferential ennobling for those on the receiving end. But the excess of this virtue works against itself, creating slavishness on one side that likely will produce a prideful dominance on the other.

The main virtues of democracies involve

  • Openness, an openness to the ideas of others, and a belief that the clash of multiple perspectives will give rise to the truth, and related to this,
  • Inclusion, and the erasure of differences between people, a necessary bulwark of equality.

The problem comes when these virtues, not ultimate in themselves, get extended to a point where they lose their meaning. Those who practice inclusion with no discrimination . . . we call them prostitutes.^^. In such situations, one dies of the flood, where too many things converge, and so we lose distinctions and coherence.

This poses a difficult problem for us. We can see that in eras when western civilization had less democracy (in good and bad ways), say, ca. 1870-1914 we had much more energy, dynamism, and confidence. This resulted in a host of good and bad things–our era has both as well. As we grew more democratic (in good and bad ways) the virtues of inclusion could transform into slavishness. It is impossible to have it all. I am not criticizing democracy, only pointing out that as a political system, it has strengths, weaknesses and limits. It has not come to save us.^^^

Revel shows us that democracies weaken themselves by gorging on democratic virtues. inviting a newcomer to Thanksgiving dinner can have the paradoxical effect of keeping the family together. As George Harrison said, inviting Billy Preston to help them record Let it Be meant that the Fab Four had to be on their best behavior. But . . . invite the whole neighborhood and the identity of the family disappears. To preserve themselves, democracies should temper their virtues, for at their limits these virtues turn to vices.


*I recently rewatched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, that renowned 80’s classic. Our heroes go back in time to get greats from the past so they can pass their history class and eventually create universal harmony through glam rock. Everywhere they go back in time, they bring back greats from the past, including Greece, China, and so on. When they get to the medieval period, it’s all darkness, gloom, and people screeching about heretics. They have to rescue two “maidens” from that period forced into marrying some crusty old barons–there is nothing to preserve, nothing to bring back from the Middle Ages. In the movie it serves only as something to escape from. When the two “babes” are brought back into the modern era as part of their rescue, they are un-ironically introduced to the joys of credit cards and shopping malls.

**Albert Mohler has a great line which he uses on those who disparage aspects of the evangelical religious right: “If you don’t like the religious right, wait until you see the irreligious right.” By that he means not your typical agnostic libertarian, but the Neo-pagan worshippers of blood, soil, and violence.

It is interesting that such a revival would occur at a time when culture in various ways seems feminized. I would say that problem is not only Uber-femininity–though that is part of it–but also the reverse. In our culture today, the only way for a female character to be the hero is for her to act like a man, to be as tough, strong, as comfortable with killing, as a man. We have very little sense of the power of the true feminine virtues.

^How then to explain Europe’s current position with Russia as the ultimate enemy once again? Well, I know the ‘Uncle’ theory is incomplete–that’s a start. Also, there is the natural affinity with the underdog at work. But I think also that we went through a period between ca. 1985-2010 or so, that we started to think of Russia a bit more like family. Then, they “betrayed” the west and “reverted to form.” Europe will not forgive them for this.

^^Note how certain strands of feminist thought have turned completely against women. Most early feminists stood strongly against pornography and objectification of women. Now, some take the idea of supporting women so far that they declare “Sex work is work!” and demand equal respect for women who choose those “professions.” No one ever said that it wasn’t work. Objections to such practices had nothing to do with the definition of work.

^^^Democracy may not be my favorite form of government, but that is not the point. I wish that defenders of democracy would focus much less on arguments that it is better than other forms, whether or not such arguments hold weight. I wish we focused more on the fact that whatever its virtues and vices, democracy is our way of life and thus worth something because it is ours. This way of thinking has its limits too. Family is not absolute either. But it is a more solid foundation that debating democracy in the abstract.

The Axis Mundi of Ecosystem Agents

Nothing quite says “hip” like a corporate cruise ship. For those like myself whose musical tastes in the 1980’s went towards the progressive rock of the 70’s, well, one could punch no faster ticket to the top of the high school social scene than to wear a shirt from Yes’ “Tales of Topographic Oceans” tour. What if one combined these Wonder-Twin powers and had a cruise dedicated to all of the bands that broke up 30 years ago? What if one could combine a non-stop buffet with non-stop mellotrons and Moogs?

Such is the starting premise for Dave Weigel’s amusing The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Such a cruise actually happened. Weigel booked his passage, and started interviewing. His book quickly gets into the history of various bands and the genre as a whole. Weigel writes as a fan and as a journalist, so he gives the reader many nuggets of the brilliance and pretentious stupidity of most every band featured.*

The stories of King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, ELP (the bands Weigel focuses on) have their particularities of course, but the similarities of their narrative arc struck me the most. These similarities manifest themselves despite the significant differences in the music of the groups above. Basically their stories boil down to

  • Band creates a brilliant, groundbreaking sound that wins them critical praise and popularity.
  • Band then begins shortly thereafter to experience significant interpersonal tension, and often, radical turnover in its members.
  • Bands then get second lives of sorts by completely embracing 80’s pop conventions, entirely altering their sound (King Crimson avoided this final step probably because they had decisively broken up by the time the 80’s came).

I am not saying that any of this is “wrong,” per se. Culture changes, people change, I get it. But the changes were very stark, rapid, and essentially uniform.

  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer go from Tarkus to this.
  • Yes goes from Tales of Topographic Oceans to this.
  • Rush opens their Hemispheres album in 1978 with an 18 minute suite (about the conflict between reason and emotion, with the section between 1:58-2:45 among their very best vignettes), and then four years later this is their biggest hit.

An argument about whether such changes were good, bad, or indifferent has merit, but the full abandonment of one ethos for another is notable in itself.

Genesis combined significant musical change and strong commercial success in both the progressive and pop incarnations more than any other band. I had no real knowledge of their output in the 1970’s before this book. In the 1970’s Phil Collins’ drumming is magnificent–inventive, swirling, yet powerful as well, as he demonstrates on this one from 1978:

Even in 1980 Genesis showed strong ties to the progressive scene on their opening track for Duke:

Just three years later, we have an entire reboot of the band:

And, while I am scrupulously avoiding value judgments here, no one can forget the absolute horror of Invisible Touch from 1986. Genesis had completely transformed, leaving them with nothing left to declare, except “I Can’t Dance.”**

The band Rush created the catalog I most admired between 1975-1982. I practically made altars to them in high school, and so when I discovered their transition to pop with the mid-late 80’s releases, I had a hard time adjusting and still feel conflicted. I heard interviews from the band explaining the change and they said things like

  • We don’t want to do 20 minute songs in 17/16 time for the rest of our lives (wise and fair, but does that mean you want to do 4 minute songs in 4/4 time for the rest of your lives?).
  • We’ve never listened to the critics.
  • We’ll always be our own entity, marching to our own drummer
  • We’ll always follow our own muse, and the music we make comes from that muse within.

Ok, fine. Every band says stuff like that. But how is it then, that all these prog bands, while “listening to the muse from within” and being completely “their own individualized creative team,” all end up in the same place, chucking progressive conventions and embracing those of pop? How did it all end so quickly, and all end in the same place?

Some might say that no one could possibly recover from Spinal Tap’s unmasking of the whole progressive genre:

Others suggest that the corporatization of record companies explains the shift. In the “golden age,” bands could be signed and allowed to develop over time. Now, hits had to be churned out more regularly, and this meant the need for more immediately radio friendly material.

We can acknowledge that record companies want to sell records. This explanation might have some merit, but it ignores the fact that bands like Yes, Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull, and so on all sold millions of albums as progressive acts in the 1970’s. “Selling records” doesn’t answer the question. Others might point to the music press, which gushed over prog rock in 1970 and uniformly despised it by 1978. Of course, all of these bands talked about following their own path, never listening to the critics. But even if they in fact tacked towards the critics, what led the critics to all suddenly change their mind?

Tocqueville has a great deal to say about the individualism in democracies, and how everyone tends think they are their own man, while at the same time following the general mass, but this cannot explain how the general mass decides to like or not like something.

Others might point to shifts in the culture that happen every 10 years or so, that everyone participates in. These shifts happen in politics, fashion, automobile design (i.e., remember SUV’s?) so they happen in music as well. This has the merit of putting music within a larger context. But at the same time, it lacks specificity. And, it still begs the question of why cultures shift so rapidly. How does that happen? If we think of prog rock as a civilization of sorts on a small scale, it would be akin to punk rockers becoming bank clerks within a few years, or if the Greeks chucked their Homer and embraced contemplative mysticism minutes of each other.

If one looks at any ancient or pre-modern civilization, one notices a clear orientation and direction that lasts for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Mario Baghos terms this orientation as an “Axis Mundi,” an intersectional point that encompasses death, life on earth, and heaven above. His From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities explores the axis mundi’s of Sumeria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, and then looks at early Christian Rome and Byzantium.

Baghos’ terms, such as Axis Mundi, and “Ecosystem Agent” need some fleshing out to understand his point. We start with a pyramid text from Pharaoh Pepi I, ca. 2300 B.C.:

Look, Osiris is come as Orion, the lord wine-colored with goods. Live! Live, as the gods have commanded you, live.  With Orion in the eastern arm of the sky shall you go down.  Sothis is the one who will lead you in the Marsh of Reeds to the perfect paths in the sky.

In this brief vignette we have

  • What is above (Orion, as god and constellation–likely one and the same in their mind)
  • What is below (the marsh of reeds), which completes the vertical axis, and
  • The horizontal axis, with the reference to the path of the sun

The Greeks had similar patterns of thought, as exemplified by their writings on the oracle of Delphi, of which Strabo below is an example.

Now although the greatest share of honor was paid to theis temple because of its oracle, since of all the oracles in the world it had the repute of being the most truthful, yet the position of the place added something.  For it is almost in the center of Greece as a whole, and it was also believed to be in the center of the inhabited world, and people called it the navel of the earth.  In addition there is the myth, told by Pindar, the the two eagles (though some say crows) which had been set free by Zeus met there, one coming from the west, and the other from the east.  There is also a kind of navel to be seen in the temple, and on it are the two likenesses of the birds of the myth.

Again, we have the idea a center point, and an intersection horizontally between east and west. Other stories have the origins of Delphi associated with Apollo becoming a dolphin and swimming to this point, which gives us a vertical axis of above (Apollo) and below (the water and sea creature), as well as a lexical history (dolphin, Delphi).

Rome focused more on earthy practicality than either Egypt or Greece, and this shows in some of their Axis Mundi descriptions. First, with Romulus and the inauguration of the Comititium:

. . . within which were deposited first fruits of all things the use of which sanctioned by custom as good and by nature as necessary; and every man brought a small portion of the soil of his native land and were cast in among the first fruits and mingled with them.  They call this trench, as they do the heavens, by the name of “mundus.”  Then, with this as the center, they marked out the city in a circle around it.

And–from Plutarch’s life of Numa Pompilius, regarding the Temple of Vesta:

Numa Pompilius built the temple of the Vesta where the perpetual fire was kept, of a circular form, not in imitation of the shape of the earth, believing Vesta to be the earth, but of the entire universe, at the center of which the Pythagoreans place the element of fire, and call it Vesta.  And, they hold that the earth is neither motionless nor situated in the center of surrounding space, but that it revolves in a circle around the central fire . . . 

Rome’s difference with previous civilizations comes out in that we see less direct reference to what is above (which we see most strongly in Egypt). But we have references to circles in both texts, the shape of eternity, and fire in the second, an “airy” substance (with the Vestal fire being possibly the most important place in Rome). We see a reference to “under the earth” with the trench and the soil as the “earth.” And though Rome undeniably thought more about earth than the heavens, we note the crucial role played by augurs–those who observed birds–in the whole of their society.

Baghos shows that early Christian culture in both and east and west grew with a similar understanding. Many medieval towns formed because of the acts of various saints in a particular place, usually involving their martyrdom. These saints descend in death, then ascend through the power of God, then descend again, by God’s leave, in the form of their relics, of which thousands of examples exist of miracles wrought through them. Churches would then get built on/near their grave, and towns would form around these churches. Each church in each locale formed its own Axis Mundi.

The concept of “Ecosystem Agent” also factors into Baghos’ analysis. An “Ecosystem Agent” functioned in many ancient civilizations as a focal point in the flesh of the civilization’s Axis Mundi. Such people were almost always kings in the ancient world. In Egypt, the Pharaoh literally was a god, in Babylon and elsewhere, the king may not have been divine himself, but functioned as the first touchpoint between the gods and his people. Numerous sources show that at the beginnings of civilizations, kingship had a priestly function, and may have even began specifically as a priestly, not a political office. Greeks of the classical era, and Romans under the Republic may not have shared entirely in this, as they had no kings. But we could say that they spread out their Ecosystem Agent functions to different offices, with the parts making a whole. During the Roman Empire, emperors served in this function, as the words of Munantius Plaucus (87-15 B.C.) show regarding Augustus:

The founding of Rome under Augustus is more honorable [than that of Romulus], inasmuch as sacred places too, and those in which anything is consecrated by augural rites are called “august” (augusta) from the increase (auctus) of dignity . . . as Ennius also shows when he writes, “After by augury august illustrious Rome had been founded.

In other words, Romulus founded the city by observing birds, and that’s great and all, but Augustus remakes Rome with his own person.

As Christian culture developed, we see both continuity and a decisive break from the past. On the one hand, Christ’s kingdom “is not of this world” and we should never try to make it so. On the other, Christ comes not just to save our souls, but our bodies, and all of creation. Everything gets eventually remade because of Him. We, as His servants, need to cooperate with this union of Heaven and Earth that He inaugurated in His Incarnation. Baghos writes,

In relation to the Logos’ transcendent governance of the cosmos, we can discern a distinct difference with ancient cultures.  But the model is not rejected, but transformed and at times flipped. For example, many ancients viewed the celestial realm as immutable, and so disturbances in the heavens often heralded death for kings.  This paradigm is inverted in Matthew’s gospel, in which the appearance of the strange star announces the birth of the true king.  

St. Ignatius of Antioch [early 2nd century] in his Epistle to the Ephesians sees “the Church and Cosmos worshiping symphonically together.  The 2nd century apologist St. Clement of Alexandria transfers the mythological metaphor of Orpheus’ songs as reshaping the cosmos, to the “celestial Logos, who sings the foundational principles throughout creation.”  

St. Irenaeus [mid 2nd century] relates the content of this teaching to Christ as “the Word, the Maker of All, . . . who has manifested Himself to men, giving His gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.  He comes to this conclusion after a discussion on why there are four Gospels.  Since the number four “is wholly even” and thus represents equality and stability, there can be only four gospels that mirror cosmic stability.

Here Baghos quotes Irenaeus who writes,

Since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is Gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she [the Church] should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and making men alive.

The spiritual and the physical connect and mirror each other at every point. But Christ Himself is the Axis Mundi, and the Ecosystem agent, though saints, kings, priests, and the ordinary man may perform some of those functions, in a limited way, as God’s viceroys.

This historical and theological event had significant implications for culture.

The older pre-Christian model had a great deal of stability, but it bound people to a kind of earthly absolutism. Christianity freed people to be anywhere, but . . . without being nowhere. The difference matters. The early Christian/medieval model meant that since Epiphany at least, the entire cosmos was sacred. But, the union of heaven and earth “needs” the participation, in a sense, of Christ’s body to make it manifest. And, since unity and diversity are present in Godhead Himself, the particularity of places and people should be preserved as well as the unity of all. Hence, the formation of lots of localisms throughout the pre-modern world, the kind of associations that Tocqueville thought essential to maintaining democracy.

The problem came between the years 1400-1700, when people decided that they could dispense with all earthly incarnations of the sacred and just look to “Providence” from above. This in turn gave rise to ideas of universality of rights, of ideas, and so on. I don’t say that this was all bad–it helped create America, obviously. But it means that if a thing can be everywhere it can also be nowhere. Culture will be more ubiquitous, and less stable and impactful.

All this means that Prog music, a byproduct of the cultural upheaval of the late 60’s, could not, and perhaps should not have lasted long. It used trappings of classical European culture sometimes with love, but also to subvert. Such is the nature of chaos. It comes and goes.

There are those who say that we moderns have abandoned all of that sacred stuff that ancients and medievals obsessed over, and now have built our civilization around interest, economics, and the like. Some praise such a development. Others declare secularization the source of our woes. Those like myself, however, believe that having a civilization without an Axis Mundi and Ecosystem Agents cannot really happen. We have them–of that I’m sure. As to what or where they are, the answer, my friend, may be blowing in the wind.


*My favorite such nugget may be the dispute between drummer Bill Bruford and lyricist/frontman Jon Anderson of Yes. Bruford could stand Anderson’s meandering, abstruse lyrics no more. “What is this rubbish, this ‘Total Mass Retain?’ What does it mean? How we can we put this kind of song out?” Anderson retorted that, how could he [Bruford] not understand that, “My lyrics take the form of colors, of pastiches of colors.”

I mean, really.

Bruford ended up leaving the band. The parting seemed somewhat mutual, however.

I played drums growing up so naturally my sympathies go to Bruford on this one. But my wife pointed out that Anderson may have been pompous, by Bruford was being a fool. “You say that Yes has just released what many consider to be the greatest progressive rock album ever, and Bruford is their drummer. He is living the dream, and leaves because he doesn’t understand the lyrics?”

She has a point. Ringo, after all, stuck around after “I am the Walrus.”

Such are the pitfalls of art.

**Yes, I find Invisible Touch impossible to listen to, but I do not think that prog=good, pop=bad. I would take Yes’ 90125 over their Topographic Oceans and Relayer albums every time. Genesis’ “No Reply at All,” and “Just a Job to Do,” stand far above over lots of what they did with Peter Gabriel back in the day.

As to the volatility of the membership of most all of these bands, I speculate that

  • A great prog song is better than a great pop song in the way that a perfectly made French pastry is better than an ordinary piece of toast with butter.
  • But . . . while the impact is deeper with the French pastry, the vein is narrower. It requires perfect mixing and perfect timing. Otherwise, the pastry gets ruined.
  • Toast, on the other hand, is always good more or less. It is easy to make–it has a very broad appeal, but obviously has much less deep penetration.
  • Prog bands are like French pastries, they have to be perfectly balanced to work well, and thus, can easily go wrong. They are volatile constructions. The only prog band that really made it long-term was Rush, who had a perfectly balanced sound between the three, and very well defined roles for constructing the music (Peart with lyrics, Lee and Lifeson with the music).

Rights of Passage

Constitution 3.0 collects the thoughts of several prominent legal analysts and technology experts to muse on the future intersection of law, technology, privacy, and the like. Most of the time they speculate on what the future might and should look like. The authors talk of different things but all agree that we will need creative thinking to solve the coming conflicts over access, security, and privacy. The book deals with big picture questions, but I thought it missed an opportunity to discuss where such issues hit most people most often in real time. The most interesting part of the book for me, then, was one example of just this–the case of Stacey Snyder, who lost her position as a student teacher over what amounted to a particular post she made on MySpace.

The very short summary is

  • While student teaching she posted a picture of herself at a party holding an indeterminate beverage in a cup.
  • She then posted a caption at the bottom of the page which read “Drunken Pirate.”
  • Someone got wind of this picture, which eventually made its way to her supervisors at the school.
  • She then lost her teaching position and, as a result of this, failed to graduate with her teaching degree. She sued for wrongful termination.

Snyder argued that she posted the photo on a private page, and the photo showed nothing illegal. She did not share the photo with students. Her perfectly legal private life should not impact her public duties in any way.

As one might imagine, the issue gets more complicated with more facts revealed (case facts, opinion here). The administration would overlook marginally bad judgment in this case for a good teacher. But Snyder received poor evaluations in some crucial areas throughout her student-teaching, such as classroom management, and being “too familiar with students.” She also, despite warnings from her supervisors, made students aware of her MySpace page, and made thinly veiled criticisms of her teaching supervisors on this page. Finally, despite teaching English, she sometimes wrote incomprehensibly even in the most formal of settings, as some examples submitted by the school district indicated.

Snyder lost her case. From the perspective of the school district, the MySpace post was one factor among many in her dismissal from student-teaching. The judges’ opinion focused primarily on certain technical matters of whether or not the court could compel the school district to award Snyder satisfactory ratings in for her certification. The 1st Amendment issues, however, boiled down to whether or not Snyder should be considered a student while student-teaching, or a public employee, i.e., a teacher. Different protections applied depending, and the judge declared that she functioned as a teacher during the time in question.

Certainly the case is not a slam-dunk, and a judge who focused more on the privacy questions, and saw Snyder primarily functioning as a college student in her role, might have ruled in her favor. For me, it’s not the ruling, but the intersection of what is personal and the public, the technically correct and broader perception, that makes this case important. Constitution 3.0 deals with crucial questions of the role of Congress, the courts, genetic engineering, neuropsychology in interesting ways, but the Snyder case brings many of these issues down to a particular point. More focus on particular questions like this would have made the book more relatable. And, while the book ably points out many of the legal problems heading our way as digital technology expands, it fails to try and understand how such technology changes our view of personhood, and thus of the rights the book discusses.

The book basically seeks to figure out how our current technology and culture should interact with our time-honored principals of the person and privacy. I suggest that possibly that these principles will not survive, not for a lack of will or wisdom, but because these principles arose out of a completely different view of the persons relationship to society than what we have currently evolving.

In a famous interview in the late 1960’s, Marshal McLuhan, he of the famed “the medium is the message,” discussed the impact of literacy and how it shaped society. He said,

Before the invention of the phonetic alphabet, man lived in a world where all the senses were balanced, a closed world of tribal depth and resonance, an oral culture structured by a dominant sense of auditory life. [This] contributed to seamless sense of tribal kinship and interdependence . . . there was little individualism or specialization. Oral cultures act and react simultaneously , whereas the capacity to act without reacting is the special capacity of “literate” man.

McLuhan went on to explain the regimentation of the printing press, and the detachment and regimentation required to read the printed word, created most everything we know of regarding the modern state from ca. 1500-1900 A.D.

Every aspect of mechanical culture was shaped by print technology, but the modern age is the age of electric media, which forge environments and cultures antithetical to the mechanical consumer society derived from print. Print tore man out of his traditional cultural matrix while showing him how to pile individual upon individual into a massive agglomeration of national and industrial power.

. . . The electric media are the telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer and television, all of which have not only extended a single sense of function as the old mechanical media did, i.e., the wheel as an extension of the foot, print as an extension of the eye–but have enhanced and externalized our entire central nervous system, thus transforming all aspects of our psychic existence.

For McLuhan, the transition began with the invention of the telegraph, the first significant electric media.

When asked if he “relate[d] this identity crisis to the current social unrest and violence in the United States?” he responded,

Yes, and [also] to the booming business psychiatrists are doing. All of our alienation and atomization are reflected in the crumbling of such time-honored social values as the right to privacy and the sanctity of the individual. . . . As man is tribally metamorphosed by electric media, we all become Chicken Littles, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities

I find McLuhan’s analysis intriguing, though I am sure I fully understand it. Perhaps he overstates his case, but I am convinced that new forms of how we get information will dramatically impact how we view the self. As television attained near ubiquity in American homes, something that McLuhan classifies as a type of transformative electric media, I find it no coincidence that we see the simultaneous rise of the idea of “authenticity”–a belief that our true selves cannot lie within existing structures.

I should state from the start that I hate the idea of authenticity. It has created a great deal of bad literature, bad poetry, and it was the Achilles heel of many of the progressive rock groups I grew up liking.* Charles Taylor’s book The Ethics of Authenticity points out a lot of good and bad with “authenticity” as a way of being, Whatever we might think about it, when we combine McLuhan’s insights with Taylor’s, we see a fusion of philosophy and technology stirring up trouble in good and bad ways for modern man, creating a crisis in our legal system and our culture.

We can see this crisis more clearly when we compare today to the past. In ye olden days, ones view of self had many more limitations, but also much more clarity and solidity. The vast majority of people had their religion, geography, social connections, and job more or less handed to them at birth. People had limited power but a much more stable and coherent view of the self. Now, through a combination of religious and technological shifts, we have more power to define ourselves, but that power comes with increased fragility of the nature of the self.

Increased power always comes with increased vulnerability. Nuclear energy could cleanly power whole regions, but if something goes badly wrong, all those regions would cease to exist. If one walks across the country, one could conceivably stumble and skin their knee. If you ran instead of walked, you would travel faster, but you could fall and twist your ankle. If you drive, you’ll get there much faster than running, but if something goes substantially wrong with the car you could face serious injury or death. Flying is even faster than the car, but if something goes mildly wrong, death would be the only possible result. If one goes into space, one screw coming slightly loose might kill everyone.

We now have a great deal of power to define ourselves. All that used to be perfectly settled is up for grabs. But with that power will inevitably bring with it a much more fragile and fluid view of the self.

This bifurcation between a society constructed with the values of the printing press, and a highly interactive technology that unconsciously promotes the values of pre-literate societies, helps us understand some of the bizarre tensions we see in society today. On the one hand, we live very private lives. We do not interact with our neighbors, everyone in the family has their own Netflix profile, and so on. On the other, we share many mundane details and thoughts of our lives with the world regularly. The reason why so many get so focused on views and likes is because, like other oral cultures, we need feedback that pre-literate man received instantaneously. At the same time, we want privacy and the right to make our choices irrespective of the values of others. We want maximum power, and naturally got maximum vulnerability to accompany it.

This tension comes out in different ways in almost all of our discussions about rights.** We still grant significant protection to home surveillance, or at least, to surveillance that reveals details inside the home. But outside the home . . . most everything is now “public.” Stores, train stations, neighborhoods—we can be legally watched anywhere one can put a camera. Part of this comes from the security concerns that come with our increased power. Constitution 3.0 explores the relationship between privacy and security quite well. It fails, however, to consider the other dynamics at play. Our idea of what constitutes a person has changed a great deal since the 1780’s. We demand the power to define ourselves freely, but cannot accept the accompanying vulnerabilities such power entails. We use technologies that at least attempt to connect us in the manner of pre-literate societies. But we want none of the communal responsibilities and accountability that comes with the technology. We live between these two poles, and so our concept of rights will fluctuate a great deal until we commit to one direction or the other.


*I have enjoyed listening to Dave Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends, a history of the progressive rock scene in the late 60′ and 70’s Weigel writes as a fan, but also as the classically detached journalist, so deadpan critic and fanboy get mixed together. Time and time again, these groups would attain some kind of great success with brilliant, creative instrumentation, then the band would fracture over the various members need to express themselves. The music also quickly got burdened with lyrics that were wispy, meandering, non-sensical, but certainly “authentic.” The book’s title alludes also to the fact that the bands started writing near/actual self-parodying songs with 8 movements that went on interminably. Band members talked about how their music “requires a lot of the audience.” What it required ultimately was extreme amounts of patience as the band essentially used the stage as a therapists couch.

Weigel spends a lot of time on Yes, and with good reason. No band put together sections of instrumental brilliance quite like them. And yet, their songs often veered into what I term “elves dancing in the meadow” motifs–gibberish masquerading as poetry with no anchor to reality. Alas! “Authenticity” occasionally made even great bands like Yes unlistenable. Thankfully, bassist Chris Squire kept them in reality when he could. If one wants to see what happened when some of Yes’ old members get together without the anchoring of Squire, and to a lesser extent drummer Alan White, sample the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album. All I can say is, prepare yourself for a full-on “Elves Prancing in the Meadow” experience.

**For example, on the abortion question. I am pro-life. I have read some people who are also pro-life that did not think Dobbs was reasoned correctly, however much they might have liked the outcome. I have not read the opinion myself and withhold judgment. I have also read some pro-choice advocates who believed Roe was built on a legal fiction, and this I have always thought. Other than that, I have no comment on the particular legal issues at stake.

Regardless of one’s position on abortion, I find it amusing and “appropriate” (in a way) that pro-choice advocates are not comfortable with the issue being decided locally and democratically. I say “appropriate” in the sense that it fits with the pattern described above. The great power pro-choice advocates desire to determine their lives cannot be subject to the whims and fluidity of democracy. It requires stronger stuff–they need a universal law to accompany their universal “right.”

Local cultures and traditions are much more stable, though of course, more limited. New York City will not be turning Red anytime soon. The habits and the traditions there would gladly support abortions for decades to come. The rights pro-choice people desire would be more stable there. But New York is not the whole country. Stretching the “right” to an abortion across everywhere means, however, that if a few justices flip one way or the other, well, that’s that. What the court creates, the court can unmake. “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.”