Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

What Causes That?

I inspect the subject of politics with a certain amount of caution, most of the time, in this space. Partly this is because the header of this blog identifies me as a lot of things, but as a politician it does not.

And, well, politics is a topic that is so full of potential land mines that I step carefully. Also, I do have perfectly wonderful friends and colleagues whose politics don’t line up with mine. Most times, we agree to disagree by talking about other things, like the latest Red Sox bullpen blowup, or the latest cool choir anthem, or something.

Nonetheless, I feel fairly safe in addressing today’s topic, as I can force it into Not Being About Politics.

Here is what the Texas senator said on “CBS This Morning” [last] Tuesday:

I grew up listening to classic rock, and I’ll tell you sort of an odd story: My music taste changed on 9/11. And it’s very strange. I actually intellectually find this very curious. But on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded. And country music collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me. And I have to say, it just is a gut-level. I had an emotional reaction that says, ‘these are my people.’ So ever since 2001, I listen to country music. But I’m an odd country music fan, because I didn’t listen to it prior to 2001.” [http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/416114/ted-cruz-country-boy-ian-tuttle]

Tell me, Mr. Gershwin, what causes that?

I shall leave aside the faint possibility that Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) made this statement in the effort to reassure a certain group of potential Republican presidential primary voters that he speaketh their language. Which is to say, an example of shameless pandering. Because this is Not About Politics.

I am tempted to examine briefly the idea of the crisis conversion. There is much documentation in the professional psychology community about what emotional and psychological conditions may contribute to someone’s ability to suddenly adopt one set of views or values over another, in the wake of a sudden event.

The classic religious paradigm for conversion is highly dependent on the idea of sudden conversion. … Sudden conversions are highly emotional but not necessarily rational. In these instances the convert is a passive agent being acted upon by external forces, and the conversion entails a dramatic transformation of self. Emotion dominates this dramatic, irrational transformation leading to a shift in self and belief, with behavior change to follow. For sudden converts conversion is not a back and forth drawn out process, but rather happens in one single instance and is permanent thereafter. Typically sudden conversions occur in childhood and are exceptionally emotional experiences. [Adapted from Spilka, B. et al. (2003). The psychology of religion, an empirical approach. (3 ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Pub.]

Much of the published research dealing with this topic similarly emphasizes the greater effects of emotion over those of reason, in these moments of conversion. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with emotion; and as long as we’re not talking about making decisions about activating a nuclear arsenal, it may be safe to suggest that emotion is not necessarily the worst motivation for changing one’s mind about something.

And assuredly, the immediate aftermath (say, the first week or two) of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an emotional and psychologically delicate time. (For those of us who heard about them but were not actually present, at least. I can only assume that witnessing them live and in person would change the conditions of this test dramatically – and almost certainly would lengthen that “aftermath” timeframe to anywhere between several months and the rest of one’s life. I can hardly speak to that point.)

But the majority of the sudden conversions that I’m personally aware of tend to be much more on the order of someone witnessing a performance of, say, the pop group “One Direction” and instantly developing a fixation on those lads. Again, I’m not dumping on those particular fans. (So for heaven’s sake, please, devoted One Direction fans, don’t go down the same road that the Absurdly Young Operatic Classical-Crossover Singing Sensation Appreciation Society did, when they got all defensive about the blog entry I wrote, nearly four years ago, that looked faintly askance at their Musical Idol. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may wish either [a] to go look up my previous blog posts called “Children and Animals” and “Zing!” … or [b] to be just as happy that you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

But, if we adopt that generic example as the model for this examination of the Sudden Conversion, well, consider all the footage you may ever have seen of American pop-music fans reacting to the arrival in the US of the Beatles, fifty or so years ago. What do all those, um, faintly emotional fans have in common?

They’re all pretty young.

And it was okay.

They were appreciating many things about the Beatles; probably not all of them to do with musicology … or guitar-playing technique … or the fact that John and Paul had no business being as truly great musical composers as they were, considering Paul didn’t (and still doesn’t) read music much, and they were neither of them far removed from their own teenage years.

The fans were appreciating the cut of their suits, and the cut of their hair, and about a zillion other things that didn’t have much to do with music. But also, on some very gut level that had nothing to do with what in the world is that opening “Hard Day’s Night” chord made up of?, the Beatles’ music or performances or public images spoke to them.

And so, we return to Sen. Ted Cruz, and the extent to which American country music – specifically, how its purveyors reacted musically to the 9/11 attacks (compared, reportedly, to the ways in which rock musicians did) – spoke to him.

Again presuming that this is About Music, and not instead About Anything Else.

I admit that I had to do a little research about this, since the only two specific things I had remembered about the aftermath of the attacks, musically, are Lee Greenwood’s (in my humble opinion otherwise execrable) song “God Bless the USA”, and the fact that more major- and minor-league baseball spectators have been made to sing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch, than are made to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, since then.

As I did this research, I noted a curious thing: the various lists of original songs written about the September 11 attacks, released in 2001 (presumably within the three months afterward), seemed about evenly divided between country artists and rock artists.

The Charlie Daniels Band, with “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag”. Paul McCartney, with “Freedom”, from his “Driving Rain” album. The country band Lonestar, with “I’m Already There”, from their similarly-titled album. Neil Young, with “Let’s Roll”, from his “Are You Passionate?” album. Tori Amos, with “I Can’t See New York”, from her “Scarlet’s Walk” album. Toby Keith, with the delicately-drawn “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”, from his “Unleashed” album.

What did all these songs (and more besides) have in common? Seemingly, they all express sympathy for the victims, and outrage at the atrocity … and, as music very often does, they strive to comfort the afflicted.

Country and rock, each.

There are hardly any examples that I can find of music that begins to, conversely, afflict the comfortable, until well into 2003, let’s just say eighteen months later. My purpose here is not to wonder why that could be; to wonder what would bring on a gradual turn away from dogged patriotism, or at least care for the victims and their losses.

Yes, the rapper Paris released a song called “What Would You Do?” which dealt with 9/11 conspiracy theories. And a Japanese singer called Misia, in collaboration with American singer Erykah Badu, released an anti-war song called “Akai Inochi (Red Destiny)”, which spoke of how the events of 9/11 turned the “seemingly distant existence of war into the reality of now”.

Ah ha! These songs didn’t come directly after the attacks, but they came! And they were done by people other than country artists! …Is what some supporters of Sen. Cruz may be saying, if they’re doing similar research to mine.

Okay; but then, there was that controversy surrounding that pesky group of uppity women called the Dixie Chicks, and how they (as members of the country music community that Sen. Cruz admires, with such a broad brush, as being “his people”) kinda stirred up the waters a bit, bein’ all critical and anti-war ‘n’ stuff.

Harder to jam that round peg in that square hole, I think.

Now, I am loathe to assume I can read people’s minds and know what they’re thinking and feeling all the time. I would be arrogant to suggest that I know, know for a fact that Sen. Cruz is full of it when he suggests that directly after 9/11, he perceived differences in how country and rock musicians were responding to the attacks that were sufficient to generate in him a Sudden Conversion – an adjustment in his musical tastes immediate and passionate enough to rival a 13-year-old’s sudden obsession with the Backstreet Boys or the Jackson Five or the Beatles.

I might be treading Hypocrite Territory, in that case.

After all, recently (well into my fifth decade on Earth) I figured out that all those silly Marvel Studios superhero movies were pretty cool stuff. When it’s Tuesday afternoon, I get a little jazzed thinking, “hey, it’s an ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ night!” And at some point I will probably blog cheerfully about how great that little eight-episode “Agent Carter” show was. But it took me stumbling onto a cable-TV rerun of the “Iron Man” movie, followed by a similarly-located rerun of “Marvel’s The Avengers”, followed by a little research into the comic-book heritage of the Avengers’ roster – now what’s all this about Thor, and Black Widow, and Captain-America-who-I-always-thought-was-fairly-lame? – although, yes, I perfectly well know all about the Incredible Hulk – to get me to be a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But it took a while.

Because I’m not 13 anymore.

And neither is Sen. Cruz. And you don’t get as far into representative government as he has by doing things, making adjustments to your core beliefs, that would get you labeled as a Flip-Flopper. Stand firm in your beliefs!

So, it does beg the question that Mr. Gershwin posed, again: “tell me what causes that?”

But let’s only talk about it in terms of music and psychology, please. Because it is, of course, Not About Politics.


March 30, 2015 Posted by | arts, current events, Famous Persons, music, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Takeaway

Twelve years ago today was a very tough day.

On a couple of previous anniversaries of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, I have taken a moment (here in this blog space) to note the date, usually utilizing what I remember of where I was – what I was doing (hmph). I made a connection, without great difficulty, to the music I was making at the time with my students – and the role that music played in getting through the day, or making sense of the day later, or offering comfort to people who needed it for a long time after.

I was teaching today, as well. Since I’m relatively new to my school, I was teaching several classes’ worth of students with whom I had never shared this particular observance. The change of scenery, I think, caused me to think in perhaps wider-angle terms than I would have otherwise. Things are different … somewhat.

My seventh-grade students were weeks or months old in 2001. I was twelve years younger, too; and much closer to the beginning of my teaching career than I am now. I wasn’t as schooled in the ways of geopolitical affairs and foreign policy as I have become, since. Then, I was much more likely to worry greatly about driving under highway overpasses than I am now – or, let’s just say that now I worry more about whether the bridges are going to come down on their own, never mind with help from terrorist people.

One night about a week ago, I noticed my local television listings beginning to fill up with 9/11 documentaries and tribute-laden programs – the Discovery Channel was showing nothing but, all afternoon and all night – and I was frankly shocked for a moment after I found myself thinking, “oh… Here we go. It’s that time of year.”

For those who lost people that they dearly loved, that day, September will always be “that time of year”. I was instantly embarrassed at my thought (which I had unhelpfully delivered to myself in the voice of the “Stewie” character from “Family Guy”). The sister of a good friend of mine from high school was on the second plane that hit the World Trade Center, for heaven’s sake. If the tables were turned, I’d be more than a little put out that somebody was thinking of this particular anniversary with the same kind of jaded outlook that a lot of us carry into, say, the holiday shopping season in December. For many many people, this is and always will be – well, deadly serious.

Not long after 9/11, many people wondered if it would be this generation’s Pearl Harbor – not so much as an impetus for war specifically, but more as an event that was both unforgettable and a turning point in a lot of people’s understanding of the state of the planet Earth, for better or for worse. I doubt people were thinking, “oh… Here we go again,” on December 7, 1953.

So I did several hundred mental pushups, as a sort of penance for my offhand thought. And I thought, okay, then: is there anything that we can take away from that awful day? Anything positive? Anything that we’ve actually learned?

There is the temptation to respond to that question by commenting on political- and military-science permutations of this question. We went to war in two places in the wake of 9/11 and we’re still hanging around in one of those theaters, a dozen years later, and to what end I’m not sure (except that this must be how the Soviet Union felt in 1980 or so). More lives lost; less ground gained, I think.

I am tempted to express deep concern about our temptation – then and now – to knee-jerkily retreat into patriotic fervor, as a means of reassuring ourselves that not only was this an awful, evil act (well, it was that; and no civilian population anywhere “had it coming”), but that becoming victims of that heinous crime automatically made us, or perhaps more properly our government, blameless in all things and justified in any and all responses. Invasions of whole countries followed. Euphemisms like “extraordinary renditions” and “enhanced interrogation” followed. Unnerving titles such as “Homeland Security” were created. Chants of “USA, USA” only make me smile at the Olympics, I think.

As is almost always the case … it’s not nearly as simple as politicians and pundits make it their business to make us believe.

So, while government activities and international politics grind on, actual people still suffer, both directly because of the attacks and indirectly, for a staggering and unnerving variety of reasons. There are vast, sweeping plains of wrong that haven’t yet been made right. There were wrongs before 9/11 that haven’t yet been addressed. There are debates that haven’t even been properly begun.

So what can we possibly take away from 9/11 that can make the human race seem like a noble thing?

Finally, I came around to this:

If thinking about 9/11 causes us to wonder what would possess someone to do such a thing, and we look further afield than just the instinctive, jingoistic “they hate us for our freedoms” answers … then regardless of what we find, we’ve at least tried to imagine the world from someone else’s point of view … and that’s something.

If observing 9/11 will cause us to remember and thank and support first-responders – not just the ones that ran toward the burning Twin Towers, but the ones that run toward trouble and danger in our own communities all the time, right now – then that’s something.

If recalling 9/11 will cause us to remember or be introduced to tales of ordinary people helping other ordinary people in far-from-ordinary circumstances … then that’s something.

If remembering 9/11 will cause us to reach out to people we know who lost friends or family on that day, to offer them some help or support or comfort or connection … then that’s something.

If I can start out sitting in a classroom with students who were mere toddlers in 2001, having conversations with them about those terrible events and these difficult issues … and somehow end up with a teachable moment that boils down to “go out of your way to treat people decently, so that your individual world stands a chance of being a better place”, or “let’s work together because it sure beats working against people” … as happened this morning …

then I guess that’s something.

September 11, 2013 Posted by | blogging, current events, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cause and Effect

Remarkable how, even when matters of life and death are in play, there are people out there who just … can’t … put it … down.

I’m as politically-minded as the next guy. I’m as faith-based as the next guy (as I’ve joked in this space before, I’m a church choir director so I’m contractually bound to believe in something). I’m as prone to bouts of humor, hopefully appropriate, as the next guy. Sometimes talk of the left or right side of the aisle, thoughts of a higher power, and the use of snark … are all necessary.

Early this morning, the Washington Post published an article online about the widespread damage done yesterday and last night by Hurricane Sandy to the northeastern US. The piece focused on the effects of the storm on the Washington, DC area, as makes sense for a newspaper based there (even one that has to deal with national and international coverage, given its proximity to our nation’s capital). But it also dealt with the huge amount of damage done to New York City and New Jersey, and the daunting amount of work that will need to be done to recover from the storm’s effects.

People throughout that region have lost their homes, their businesses, and in some few cases, their lives. At this writing, “only” thirteen; but it’s not an insignificant number to the friends and family of the people who have died.

And then some yahoo commenter posted this comment below the Post article:

Did you notice that most of the states hit by the hurricane are liberal states who are going to vote for Obama? I think God is sending signs that starting in January 2013, we are going to have magic underpants in the White House!


Can’t put politics and/or organized religion down for two seconds…?

Well, Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment of New Orleans for its lifestyle of debauchery and such. And, as I recall, 9/11 was God’s retribution for America’s tolerance of The Gay. There’s precedent and pattern, right?

Friends, this is more than just a case of a random hyper-political person – who, incidentally, I bet doesn’t live anywhere near where Hurricane Sandy hit.

And the other two disaster-related comments represent more than just a case of a pretend preacher who needs to whip up his televangelistic flock so as to maintain his current level of bank account, a Reverend who isn’t truly reverent about a thing that truly matters.

This is a case – and, sadly, not an isolated one – of a person in the process of losing his or her humanity.

When I read the comment, I let out an instant and immediate, “oh, my God.” Then I made note of the content of my own outburst. Yes. “My God.” That’s what drove that Post article comment, and it’s what now drives many knee-jerk comments, many calculated statements of opinion (newspaper columns and the like), and a number of beliefs about what ought to be public policy. There are people in our world who care far more about their ideologies (political or spiritual) than they do about fellow human beings who might be adversely impacted by the results of those ideologies.

Also por ejamplo: lately, it has become clear that to a certain subset of people, rape and its resulting biological consequences are gifts from God, so yeah – precedent and pattern. Last week, the candidate for US Senator from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, defended his opposition to abortion by saying, “…I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Mr. Mourdock might be forgiven for not realizing how strongly this statement implies that life is such a gift from God that He (or She? in this case that’s doubtful) is okay with its creation through a violation of a human person. [Which is not the God I was taught about in Sunday School, by the way.] Shortly thereafter, Mourdock went on, “I believe God controls the universe. I don’t believe biology works in an uncontrolled fashion.”

Clearly there are people don’t believe meteorology works that way, either.

Yes, I know all about the story of Noah and the ark and the flood and the Bill Cosby sound effects, and various other Biblical tales of cities and regions being laid waste because they were misbehaving in God’s eyes. They’re all in the Old Testament, have ya noticed? That particular Testament is much more of a disaster movie than the Testament that followed it.

If we’re looking for patterns, I suppose we could note the fact that both Mr. Mourdock and Congressman Paul Ryan are experienced marathon runners; and both of them supportive radically restrictive policies regarding women’s reproductive rights; so that must mean that ALL marathon runners want to see the Roe v. Wade decision overturned.

Mustn’t it?

Friends, didn’t they try to teach us to think critically, in school (aside from Texas)?

Apparently there are people out there who will look for anything, any old coincidence, to make a statement supporting their beliefs. No matter how tenuous or just plain absurd the coincidence is. No matter how heartless the statement is.

This is not a big enough space to debate the question of the extent to which God controls the universe.

(I’ll give you a moment to contemplate the sheer unadulterated understatedness of that last sentence.)

All I know is that while we’re all here on earth, regardless of what our belief about that is, we at least owe it to each other to do one thing, especially in moments of disaster like the one that has befallen the area around New York City. We owe it to each other to follow at least one phrase out of that beloved (but oft-ignored, even by supposed followers) Good Book: the Gospel according to St. Mark, the twelfth chapter, somewhere between verses 28 and 31:

One of the teachers of the law … asked [Jesus], “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

I’m no Biblical scholar, but I think obeying the second commandment may be a good way to obey the first.

And the yahoos out there who post unthinking, unfeeling comments about God directing disasters toward people who don’t believe the things that they, the yahoos, do? The ones for whom such comments represent not not-well-thought-out jokes, but strongly-held beliefs?

At best, they’re missing the point.

October 30, 2012 Posted by | Internet, media, news, politics, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment