Archive for category Dennis DeYoung

The Materialist Illusion

We live in a world of matter and energy (though as Einstein demonstrated, the two are really the same).  Matter and energy are at base particles, though the term particle is a bit misleading.   It isn’t like there are minuscule chunks of stuff out there, it’s more like there are ripples in various fields, and those ripples create what we experience as reality.   The current thinking is that the only reason our material world has weight is because of ripples in what is called the Higgs field.  The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is trying to find a Higgs boson (particle) that would prove the existence of this field.

So right at the start the material world isn’t what it seems to be; we’re clearly perceiving it because we’re made of the same stuff and experiencing it with brains that translate how we interact with the ripples in various fields into sensations.

All of this is to foreshadow my real topic: the importance of education.   In discussion on yesterday’s post it was suggested that students forgo college and work hard in order to make money.  I noted that on average college grads earn $1 million more during their life than non-grads, and usually at jobs that are more comfortable.   One person pointed out that students can amass debt during college.   I’ve long thought that unless you get into a really top name school where contacts and connections are abundant, it’s not worth paying a lot to go to a fancy private college.   In fact, at the top schools well qualified applicants will always get substantial scholarships if they have need (and often even if they don’t).  It’s the second and third tier privates where can cause you to amass over $100,000 of debt in four years.

That’s one reason I choose to teach at a public liberal arts school.   The goal is to provide a quality liberal arts education rivaling the expensive private schools at a much lower price.   Kiplinger’s put us in their top 100 colleges in terms of value — you get a good liberal arts education without high debt.   Even out of state tuition is manageable.

That gets harder as state funding gets cut (it now pays about 40% of the costs, so we’re more private than public).  And we lack the resources, pay rates, beautiful grounds and sofas in the hallways with state of the art classroom equipment that nearby privates like Colby, Bowdoin or Bates enjoy.    I don’t get resources and time to do much research, teaching is the focus.    Yet that is gratifying, I’d much rather teach than research.

However, my goal in teaching is only partially to get students to understand how political scientists analyze world affairs and comparative politics.   Only a small number of students will go on to graduate school, a few will work in fields involving foreign affairs, but many will end up with a degree designed to get their foot in the door and be able to advance in fields outside of political science or international relations.   Where once college was an elitist institution where you groomed students to follow in your disciplinary field, now it’s mass education designed to give students the capacity to better understand the world, develop critical skills, learn to read and write more effectively and be prepared for how fast jobs and opportunities shift.

The stated goal is to promote “life long learning.”   Practically that means to help students learn to break out of the cultural hypnosis that so often captures people.   One of those spells is the idea that somehow happiness comes from material prosperity.   That if you can get rich, you’ve succeeded.    Or as Dennis DeYoung put it with Styx in 1977: “Don’t be fooled by the radio, the TV or the magazine; they’ll show you photographs of how your life should be, but they’re just someone else’s fantasy.”

Pressure is put on students by parents, peers and themselves to look at life in starkly materialist terms: how much money will I make, what will I own?   One student back in Minnesota came to me when I was a TA and said her dad didn’t want her to go to Spain for a year because of what it would mean for her earning potential in her prime years (apparently he charted out what missing a year would mean).   I told her that was insane, that what she’d gain from going to Spain would be invaluable for her life, and now she can afford to do it.    She told her dad what I said (though she promoted me to professor in her story) and surprisingly he backed down, “well, if your professor says its worthwhile, then go.”

Now one could argue that one doesn’t need college to become a life long learner.  Indeed, no matter what you think of the politics of Malcolm X, the story of how he educated himself — learning words and history while in prison — is powerful.   If one truly wants to learn, one can.   My experience is that most people don’t.   It’s not that they don’t like learning, but they don’t know how much knowledge and understanding enriches a life.  Even Malcolm probably wouldn’t have taken the time if he hadn’t been in prison, cut away from his life of what had been petty crime to that point.

Part of teaching is to get students to see that.   One time after a unit on the Cambodian genocide a student was so shocked by what happened that he took a job the next summer to teach English in Cambodia.   More often students talk about how what they learned changed how they look at the world, causing them to see both their future and their goals in a different light.   That’s what college should be about —  four years where your main job is to learn about the world and its mysteries from science, literature, how societies function, philosophy, world religions, and diverse cultures and countries.   You can’t do all of that in four years, but if you get students on the right track they’ll want to keep learning as they go on — that’s the goal.

Ultimately if this world is made up of nothing but ripples in fields, life is transient and brief.  Moreover, we don’t know what it is – it takes as much a leap of faith to say that the material stuff is all that is and once dead we’re simply gone as it does to say that something spiritual carries on.   Our lack of knowledge makes both claims equally plausible.   The fact that there is something rather than nothing causes me to think it likely there is something beyond this brief material existence, but who knows?

And if there is something important about living, it can’t just be acquiring material stuff.   We need it, but at some level once we are able to survive that isn’t the sole meaning of existence, nor does it seem to bring growing pleasure.    Someone who gets used to the luxuries of a millionaire’s life style probably enjoys them no more than how a middle class worker enjoys his or her material pleasures.   Once you get most of the hotels playing monopoly the game gets boring.

People choose distractions – television, sports, celebrity gossip, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, religious fervor, ideological fervor, anything to help push aside the emptiness that an unexamined life yields.    Education and exploring the richness of the world’s art, music, literature, science, cultures, etc. opens up avenues that enhance ones’ personal journey and spiritual reflections.   We may not end up with the answers, but the journey becomes exciting and exhilarating on a deeper level.   And isn’t the journey what it’s all about?   After all, the final destination is the same for all of us.

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Tea Party vs. OWS

I found this diagram on politico.com, which linked it to this site, belonging to James Sinclair who writes:

Yeah, I’m oversimplifying, but only a little. The greatest threat to our economy is neither corporations nor the government. The greatest threat to our economy is both of them working together. There are currently two sizable coalitions of angry citizens that are almost on the same page about that, and they’re too busy insulting each other to notice.

Mr. Sinclair has a point — not only are the roots of both movements similar, but neither side really sees the true problem, it’s the nexus of corporate and government interests that create the most problems.    Therein lies the possibility of a true alternative to politics as usual.

This doesn’t mean a new third party or some rising independent candidate.   Rather, the two major parties have gotten into a rut.  When the economy was booming and it appeared the US was doing it right through deregulation and lower taxes, the parties got lazy.   Democrats like Bill Clinton embraced Wall Street and an economics team that was more laissez faire than even Reagan’s cohort.    To keep their ‘base’ the Democrats played interest group politics while pushing for programs like an overhaul of the health care system.   They didn’t get much accomplished on that front, but with the times good it didn’t matter.

The Republican party played similar games with social conservatives.  They gave lip service to issues like abortion and gay rights, but overall it was ineffective and just enough to keep the base in line.   So while the spectacle of intense partisan rancor filled the airwaves, the reality was that the two parties were becoming more alike than different.  Issues dear to social conservatives were not prioritized by the GOP, and the Clinton Administration ended up partially dismantling rather than building up social welfare programs.

Perhaps because of the growing ideological convergence of the two parties politics turned to personal stuff.   Did Clinton (or Bush the Younger) evade service in Vietnam unfairly?   Clinton was impeached for nothing he did as President but for an affair with a younger intern.    The personal trumped the substantive in a politics that was more about illusion and spectacle than substance.

During all that time both government and private citizens fell into the debt trap, driven in part by illusions of wealth thanks to the dot com craze and the real estate bubble.  The hypnosis of consumerism blinded people to the decay right before our eyes.   Day trading, flipping real estate and get rich quick schemes trumped hard work and imagination.   But unemployment was low and the GDP rising.   What me worry?

As more money flowed into campaigns a nexus between big business and big government formed.   As the middle class eroded thanks to the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the service sector, only the bubble economy and cheap goods from China prevented people from grasping how their country was changing into something less democratic with leaders less accountable than before.   Then in 2007 the housing bubble burst, starting a period of economic stagnation which turned into crisis in September 2008.

Now the veil’s been lifted from our eyes.   Now we see the corruption on Wall Street, the scandals in government, the links between big money and the Administration, touching both Obama and Bush.   President Obama’s election came because people thought he represented change.   But fearing a revolt from the elites of Wall Street, he embraced the same advisors that worked for Clinton, and took a very establishment approach.

Campaigns now are more marketing than an exchange of ideas.  Candidates are packaged and speak in bland generalities.  They have to, because if they break from the script they might make a gaffe and have it spread until it destroys their candidacy.    Spectacle over substance; illusion over reality.   Talk radio peddles emotion over reason, demonizing and mocking rather than engaging in real political discourse.   Politics becomes a “contact sport,” where one chooses a team and gets into the game, or one takes the view of Dennis DeYoung in his song “I don’t believe in Anything”:

I hate the bloody liberals and the neo-cons, they’re all so full of shit
Oh the way they talk to us, I think they think we’re idiots
What a bunch of hypocrits! 

Obama’s approval ratings are low, but those of Congress are far lower.    We’re in crisis and our political system is unable to respond.   20th Century thinking doesn’t cut it, the bubble years are over, so now what?

Now we have the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street representing two different movements driven by similar concerns.   The Tea Party has lost some of its luster, and no doubt that will happen to OWS as well.   But the two movements signify a desire of the electorate to change the nature of politics in the US.   It should be closer to the people, less bureaucratic, less in service of big corporate interests, and more respectful to average citizens.   Take away the fringe social conservatives on the right and socialists on the left, and you have a broad range of agreement between the two groups.

The agreement is this: big money and big government have gotten too cozy with each other and have too much power.   The only way to counter this is not to dismantle the corporate world and introduce socialism, nor to dismantle government with faith that markets can work magically.    The answer is to increase accountability at all levels by making both government and business decision making transparent.    We need to decentralize power – both governmental and in the private sector.

There will still be fights about proper tax rates, social welfare programs, abortion, gay marriage and all that.   But the potential for agreement on the need to restructure our socio-economic-political system is real.   The left needs to stop defending governments at every turn, the right needs to stop defending big money.   When power is concentrated it is always dangerous, whether in the form of a private corporation or a state.

We have the technology to decentralize and force greater transparency.   One aspect of both the Tea Party and OWS is their ability to use social media to build their movement and get the message out.   The partnership between big government and big money needs to be derailed.  Now if the activists on each “side” can put aside their differences long enough to focus on what they agree upon, maybe both movements can be a force for positive change.

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“One Hundred Years From Now” and “Cyclorama”

    

I thought it would be fun to compare the most recent solo album by Dennis DeYoung: One Hundred Years from Now with the most recent studio album of new songs from the band Styx, Cyclorama.   DeYoung’s album came out in 2007 in Canada, and then was released with some changes to the US in 2009.   Cyclorama was released in 2003 and is the only Styx studio album without DeYoung’s presence.   DeYoung’s album apparently did not chart in the US (though it hit number 1 in Canada), while Cyclorama reached 127 on the Billboard chart, selling about 50,000 copies.   I’ll start with the older album.

I believe Cyclorama is an excellent album and I enjoy it more as I listen to it more.   It’s just not really a Styx album for me.  Without DeYoung it seems like a very different band.   Not a bad band, but a different band.   The album has a number of highlights.   James Young shines with These are the Times, his best song since Miss America.   It is a powerful hard rock song that probably could not be written by a young man.  It reflects the wisdom of experience along with the recognition that choices matter.   One with Everything by Tommy Shaw is another of my favorites — on so many levels the song moves and amazes me, the music is one with the lyrics, it is on my list of all time favorite songs.  Lawrence Gowon, who replaced DeYoung, also contributes solidly to the album, especially with the socially and psychologically relevant More Love for the Money.

The album has no clunkers.   Killing the Thing that you Love drags a bit for me, and is the song I most often click past. James Young’s Captain America is OK; the idea is good and the music rocks, but the song itself seems to be missing something.   Otherwise, every song is enjoyable, well produced and well written.    Tommy Shaw’s contributions reflect some of the best song writing of his career, showing that he has grown as an artist.  Rather than following old formulas, he explores new ground and each song is interesting and compelling.

One of my favorites is Kiss Your Ass Goodbye by Glen Burtnik, a song which combined with the Bourgeois Pig bit by Billy Bob Thornton at the start is the kind of break from the norm that compares to Mr. Roboto and Plexiglass Toilet.   It’s a novelty song, but fun.    It also adds to the complex variety the album offers while still seeming coherent and connected.  In that Shaw’s One With Everything captures the spirit of the ablum — diverse, yet a true unified effort.

One Hundred Years from Now by Dennis DeYoung sounds more like a Styx album than does Cyclorama.   In fact, it’s got a collection of songs that rival anything DeYoung wrote either solo or as a member of Styx.   Given that on any given Styx album his contributions represented three or four songs, his ability to put together 12 tunes this good is amazing.  I have since ordered his Hunchback of Notre Dame musical and will listen to that as well!

The title track, done on the Canadian version partly in French in a duet with Eric Lapointe, is done in English by DeYoung alone on the US release.   To me it is up there with Suite Madame Blue, Unfinished Song, Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight among DeYoung’s best efforts.  It combines a pleasant, catching and powerful melody with lyrics conveying a profound message.

Another song that I find riveting is Rain.   It has DeYoung’s hallmark talent of writing a melody that is intensely powerful yet accessible, evoking images of real devastation (apparently Katrina was an inspiration) as well as being a metaphor for one overwhelmed by life.    Crossing the Rubicon is a deep and almost mystical song that reflects wisdom and experience.  As one ages one has to recognize the need to move on and make changes; instead of ‘waiting for a better day,’ you have to take risks and move onto new ground.   If you’re like Estragon (the character from “Waiting for Godot” to whom DeYoung alludes) you’ll simply be waiting for death.  Each time I listen, the more meaningful the song is for me.

There was a Time is a reflective look back, reminding me a bit of his earlier Goodbye to Roseland, but better.   Private Jones is a hard rock tribute to those who fought in the post 9-11 wars, reflecting the uncertainties and disappointment of those whose patriotism seemed confronted with an ambiguous reality.

There’s also a group of songs that has a spiritual sense of human faith in relationships: Save Me, I Believe in You, and Forgiveness.   Breathe Again rounds off that list, being a very personal song from DeYoung to his wife Suzanne, yet a powerful statement in its own right.  Two of my favorites are social commentaries on the information revolution: I Don’t Believe in Anything and Turn Off CNN.

Any fan of Styx in its heyday will appreciate DeYoung’s solo effort.   He’s allowed himself to create an album with the elements that made Styx one of the most successful bands of its era, but doesn’t do so in a formulaic manner.  The songs show his versatility both as a singer and song writer.    His voice sounds very much like it did in Styx’ heyday; to me the album stands alongside Grand Illusion and Paradise Theater in quality.

The good news, then, is that both Styx related acts have quality.    Like the original band in the early days, both refuse to take short cuts or coast.   Cyclorama‘s songs are fresh, exciting and coalesce a diverse set of elements into a superb album.   Dennis DeYoung captures the spirit and sound of classic Styx in a dynamic, fresh collection of songs.   The bad news is that neither CD sold enough to create anticipation of new material any time soon.   It’s unclear if the current Styx lineup will ever release another set of new songs (songwriter Glen Burtnik has left the band since Cyclorama) and DeYoung has a variety of projects.

The quality of these two CDs hint that a studio album reuniting Styx and DeYoung could be big.  Shaw and DeYoung showed in these albums that they are if anything better song writers than they were in the past, and James Young’s These Are the Times hints at his capacity to contribute a gem.   If they came back together and pooled their creative juices, having the maturity and perspective to realize that product they create is worth not delving into past disagreements and fights, they could not only have a better album than either of these two, but one that might actually sell — Gold, perhaps even platinum.   What a coup that would be for a band that’s been around in some form for almost fifty years!

They need not lose Gowon either.   With CDs running 65 or 70 minutes, he could contribute some songs and an expanded Styx could satisfy and unite a fan base that’s often been split between DeYoung fans on the one hand and Shaw-Young fans on the other.   DeYoung and Chuck Panozzo are the only true original members of the band remaining, it would be a fitting cap to the band’s career to heal the rift.   If DeYoung’s other projects and dislike of heavy touring continues, that would no longer be a problem.  He could perform some big concerts, and Gowon could handle the longer tours.   The band could be reinvigorated and fans would be delighted.

A pipe dream?   Are the egos really too big and the feelings too sensitive?  I hope not.  DeYoung has claimed he’s willing to try it again.   The others might decide its worth a chance for another best seller and spike in their career.   They may feel that it would be a gift their fans deserve.   And maybe, as they shot past age 60 and start to look mortality in the face, they may realize that the collective magic that gave them five straight multi-platinum albums deserves another run.

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1977: Illusions and Star Wars

1977 may not be remembered as an especially important year, even though it started with Commodore demonstrating the first personal computer – the Commodore PET – in early January.   Gerald Ford was finishing out his short term as President, while Jimmy Carter was getting ready to move into the White House.   But in 1977 three pieces of popular culture were released which represent major reflections of and influences on my world view.

On May 25, 1977, 20th Century Fox released a film many in the company thought would not be worth the $12 million they spent producing it: Star Wars.    It was the creation of George Lucas whose surprise hit American Graffiti  had given him the credibility to pitch this sometimes silly sounding story of good vs. evil in a galaxy far, far away to the movie execs.   Sci-fi films rarely made much money, though.   Moreover it opened at only about 40 theaters because of lack of interest.

Yet from that first day it was an instant hit, with lines in every city where it was shown.    Most people think that a smart strategy of hitting sci-fi conventions and releasing a comic strip before the movie’s release generated enough beneath the radar buzz to turn what some expected to be a flop into a major success.  In any event, overnight it changed the film industry and unleashed a phenomenon that spread across the country.   Now almost 35 years later my 8 and 5 year old sons know every character, have toy light sabres, Star Wars Lego sets and video games.    3D versions of the films will start being released to theaters next year — the force is still with us.

On July 7, 1977 (7/7/77) the struggling band Styx released The Grand Illusion.   Styx had hit the big time with the single Lady, but its two recent LPs Equinox and Crystal Ball failed to push them to the next level; Crystal Ball  actually undersold Equinox.    The release was met with a yawn.   The first single from the album, Come Sail Away, moved slowly up the charts and seemed to stall.    Then suddenly it took off to the top ten.   The album quickly went platinum and Styx became a certified big time act.   They would dominate the concert circuit and LP sales for the next five years, the largest and most successful act of the late seventies/early eighties.

Also in 1977 author Richard Bach published Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, a follow up to his unexpected best seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which had been published in 1970.   Illusions would not sell nearly as well as Seagull had, but when I read it I was amazed.  It not only reflected thoughts I had inside about the nature of reality, it also helped shape how I look at the world.    The book exemplifies a kind of new age spiritual philosophy, a bit neo-Platonist, and one which if embraced requires one to take full responsibility for every aspect of ones’ own life.

What sets Illusions apart from other spiritual descriptions of life, or ideological attempts to define what life means and how one should live is the books final thought:  Everything in this book may be wrong.   Bach did not provide dogma around which cultists would gather, he presented his personal philosophy in story form, allowing readers to find it as persuasive as they wished, reminding them that it’s just his interpretation of experience.   Unlike religious leaders he did not claim divine authority; unlike some philosophers, he did not claim to have discovered truth.

Styx album The Grand Illusion has a similar theme — ‘if you think your life is complete confusion because your neighbor’s got it made, just remember it’s a grand illusion, and deep inside we’re all the same.’   Yet the album focused less on giving a world view than reflecting the way in which America’s cultural embrace of materialism and consumerism lead to a dead end.   We can fall under the spell of believing we need wealth, beauty and fame, but in the end those things aren’t real — they are illusions.   From the biting cynicism of Miss America, the hopeful escapism of Come Sail Away to the introspective Man in the Wilderness, the album explores the human quest to find meaning in modern America from a number of perspectives.    Whatever the external trappings or competitions won and lost, we still ask “who the hell we are.”   The Grand Illusion remains my favorite album of all time.

Star Wars, of course, contained similar allusions.   We are surrounded by an invisible force that permeates and unites all that is; reality is much deeper than its material appearance. George Lucas studied mythology as he designed the story, casting it as good vs. evil, and ultimately a story of the redemption of what might be one of the heinous criminals one can imagine.   On the surface it was a throw back to the old Flash Gordon type serials of the fifties, when the good guys were very good and the bad folk were pure evil.

It was fun, the mysticism didn’t overwhelm the action, and though the characters were not well developed, the plot moved quickly and audiences connected.    It also had another connection to the other two cultural products – it dealt with reality beneath appearances.    That’s why people connected – it wasn’t a complex cynical analysis of the human condition, it was a straightforward appeal to our basic ideals of freedom and values.

Taken together, what influence did these 1977 works have on my world view?  I guess they reinforce my view that we each have to take responsibility for our lives, recognizing that much of what we strive for and take seriously is temporal and unimportant.   Beauty fades, wealth does not satisfy ones’ spirit, and battles and competitions are quickly forgotten (this obviously connects with my last post on Augustine and Petrarch).   More importantly, there is a purpose.   Life isn’t meaningless.    Just as it was Luke’s fate to confront Darth Vader, I trust that life leads us to where we are meant to be; each of us is actually the captain of our life voyage.  Blaming others only pushes us deeper into delusion.

The final song (save the album coda) on Grand Illusion is Castle Walls by Dennis DeYoung.   I’ve often thought about the Star Wars saga as I listened to these lyrics.    I also suspect the last two lines reflect true wisdom.

Far beyond these castle walls
Where I thought I heard Tiresias say
Life is never what it seems
And every man must meet his destiny

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“The Problem’s Plain to see…

…too much technology
machines to save our lives, machines dehumanize”
— Styx, “Mr. Roboto” (1982)

In the nearly thirty years since Dennis DeYoung of Styx penned those lines, the growth of technology has multiplied.   In 1982 the internet was an unknown form of communication between science departments of a few large research centers.   The personal computer was on the market, but still rare and without operating systems that made use easy.   Satellite phones were rare, expensive, large and clunky.   Most people had never seen one, let alone used one.

On television cable programming was just beginning to expand.  MTV had already debuted, as had CNN.   At this point they were still experiments, no one knew if they would succeed.    There were news reports that the Japanese were developing the capacity to put music on discs that could be laser read, but if you wanted music you either had to put on a record album or cassette tape.    VCRs were the new high tech toy.   Not only could you tape your favorite shows and watch them again later, but places renting movies in VCR form were popping up, meaning you could watch an old film without commercials at your leisure.   People no longer were limited to watching what happened to be on television at the time they wanted to watch.    When you photographed people or places you took care to try to get a good shot.  Developing film was expensive, and you wouldn’t know how it turned out until you got the prints back from the camera shop.

At the time, of course, we thought we were living in a world filled with technological wonder.   The VCR is hyper-cool if you don’t know about DVDs, streaming video, or DVRs.    The Minolta SLR camera with different lenses and filters made it easier than ever to take high quality photos.   Color TVs were increasingly affordable as the old black and white sets disappeared and Sony’s new expensive “walk man” allowed you to play cassette tapes in a small portable device with headphones.   One could conceivably jog and listen to music at the same time.  How cool is that!   So much for transistor radios!   Home movies were really are (and the equipment expensive and bulky), but a few people had a screen and projector to look at slides.

Some cars even buttons to roll down windows or even lock the car.   That seemed a bit excessive — one can easily roll a window up and down (and the car didn’t have to be on) and why have a labor saving device for something as simple as pushing down a car lock!?   Pinball machines were still king, but Pac Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Donkey Kong and other “video games” were becoming popular.   The Atari company even put out a machine you could hook to your TV to play such favorites as “missile command.”   Video games on your television?   Wow!

One good thing about being 50 is that I got to experience first hand this remarkable era of technological advancement.  The last thirty years have seen life become fundamentally altered.    As a student in high school and college I’d go use the IBM selectric typewriter my dad’s secretary had whenever I could.  That had a button that would erase a mistake (white out the error) and it was easy to type on.    Alas, I often had to re-type whole pages thanks to a typo or margin error, and if anything was revised it would often mean retyping the whole paper.

In college researching a paper required a trip to the library.   One became adept at using card catelogs, knowing the library of congress scheme of arranging subjects, and plugging dimes into the photo copy machine to copy magazine or journal articles.    I was lucky to be a fast typist — most boys hadn’t learned to type.  I was one of only a few in my typing class back in 8th grade, wanting to someday become a sports writer.  Girls learned to type to become secretaries.   Boys, of course, would be the bosses using Dictaphones (which were already making short hand obsolete).

So while my friends tried to cajole their girl friends to type up their papers, I could just sit at my type writer and work.   Yet we were the pinnacle of technology, a TV and small refrigerator in every dorm room, and nice stereo systems – the best had components, a tuner, amp, a couple large speakers, a nice turntable and a tape deck.

My girlfriend at the time was studying computer science — learning languages like Basic, Pascal, and Cobol.   I’d go into the computer lab sometimes and try to create programs — one where the computer asked questions and then came up with a personality profile was my best.   Of course then Bill Gates would come and create an operating system that took away the need to program your computer (remember when one had to know html to write a web page in the early nineties?)

Now my kids can’t comprehend why the TV at a hotel can’t be paused or set to record shows.   They have told me we should be able to watch on demand any show on the program guide.  “In a few years,” I replied, realizing that may indeed be the case.   Students can revise papers constantly without even printing them out.   Almost any question can be answered via google, while youtube provides videos of just about anything you might want to watch.   You can do better research from a poor rural university than you used to be able to do at all but the best schools.

Music is now portable, you can have a vast array of music on demand on gadgets as small the adapters one used to have to use to play 45 RPM records on a turntable.   Everything can be downloaded, traded, and even movies and TV shows can be watched on devices one carries in ones’ pocket.    Where once we had to call each other, meet at the mall or library to hang out, or as teens cruise downtown to run into friends, now there’s facebook and texting.     We used to be able to escape our parents easily — once we were out the door, we were out of touch (and out of reach).   Now there are cell phones, tracking software, and constant contact.    The internet allows communication across cultures and contexts.

Is there too much technology?  Does all of this dehumanize us?   At one level yes.  All technology even going back thousands of years removes us a bit from the state of nature.  Yet with all due respect to Rousseau, this only means that we are able to alter what is human, perhaps even changing human nature.    It may be de-humanization compared to what we were before, but since we humans are constructing our new selves, it’s still human.    And while the computer, texting and social media are altering who and what we are, the book, telegraph and postal service did that to earlier humans.   So, though Dennis DeYoung’s lyrics are often prophetic, I don’t think there is too much technology — now or in 1982.

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Styx: The Wooden Nickel Era

Between 1972 and 1974 a struggling Chicago rock band named Styx released four albums on an RCA subsidiary named Wooden Nickel Records.   Wooden Nickel was a creation of Bill Traut and the now famous Jerry Weintraub, focusing on Chicago area bands.   Even before Styx was a hit, it was their biggest act, a popular Chicago band that they hoped could break through to the big time.  After Styx went to A&M records in 1975 Wooden Nickel disbanded in 1977.   The only other “names” they had were Exile (before it became a country band) and Jaggerz (after its one hit “The Rapper.”)

None of these four albums was a success upon release; only Styx II went Gold, and that was after a late break of the hit Lady, which reached number 6 on the charts after Styx had already released two other albums.  That Dennis De Young standard launched their career and after a line up change and two moderately successful albums with minor hits the band broke big with their seventh album, The Grand Illusion.

I am not a music critic, but for much of the summer I’ve been listening to the first four albums over and over, recorded to CD from my album collection.   I’ve come to really enjoy them, and realize that even before the classic Styx era, the band had real talent and enjoyable music.   So as a change of pace, I’ll critique/review these four albums.

The lineup:   Styx at that time included the original three that went way back to a band called Tradewinds:  Chuck Panozzo on bass, his fraternal brother John Panozzo on drums, and Dennis De Young on keyboards.  After changing their name to TW4 (since another group named Tradewinds had a hit) they added John Curulewski on guitar and finally guitarist James Young, who came to the band via a hard rock act named Monterey Hand.   Young added a hard rock edge to what had been a popular cover band focusing on pop (the Beatles, etc.), and soon it was one of the most popular bands in the Chicago area.   Wooden Nickel’s President Bill Traut signed the band, impressed by the three part harmonies of DeYoung, Young and Curulewski.

The Wooden Nickel albums represent a fusion of those three styles.  De Young was pop oriented, focusing on melodies and showing off his distinctive powerful tenor.  Young was a fabulous guitarist who preferred harder rock, while Curulewski hoped the band would take a progressive ‘art rock’ direction.   At its peak (after Curulewski left) the tension between different styles (Tommy Shaw would bring a blue grass/acoustic style) lead to awesome music; during the Wooden Nickel days it led to some fantastic music, but a confused identity.

Styx (1972) Debut album.

The debut albums includes cool cover art, quotes on the back from Dante’s Inferno (about the river Styx) and from Mayor Richard Daley, and is a decent first effort.    Styx opened with a 13 minute “Movement for the Comman Man,” including Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.”   The first song, “Children of the Land” was penned by James Young, and demonstrates the kind of straight forward rock n’ roll that had given the band its reputation.  Young and De Young would also team up to write “Best Thing,” which peaked at number 82 on the Billboard charts, a song that fuses Young and DeYoung’s influneces in a manner that holds its own to this day.   The two also wrote “Mother Nature’s Matinee,” the close of the four part ‘Movement.’  It introduced listeners to DeYoung’s famous voice, with hints of what was to come.   The other very strong song is “What Has Come Between Us” by Mark Gaddis.   It has the quintessential Styx sound to it, with DeYoung’s melodic vocals making it one of my favorites on the album — even thought it was not written by DeYoung.

In all the album sounds good — one can imagine rocking to it in Chicago in 1972.   Although Bill Traut picked songs he thought fit the band — they show off James Young’s guitar work, the harmonies, and rocking style — the band sounds like its covering songs written by others.     Still it was a solid debut and gained them recognition outside the Chicago scene.

Styx II (1973)

The cover art was less impressive (though the back side depicts the river Styx), but this album that broke late and ultimately went gold is the best of the Wooden Nickel era.   Dennis DeYoung wrote five of the seven songs, the other two came from John Curulewski.   Side one is near perfection.  It opens with James Young singing the DeYoung penned “All You Really Need is Love,” a catchy early seventies nod to the vibe of the Beatles with a rock edge.   That gives way to “Lady,” the standard that launched Styx’ big time career.   From there it shifts to “A Day,” a beautiful, progressive sometimes haunting eight minute song by John Curulewski.   It’s Curulewski at his best, shifting styles and adding something that Styx lost when he left.   He followed that with a humorous tune “You Better Ask.”

Side two starts with a classic moment – DeYoung performing Bach’s “Little Fugue in C,” on the Cathedral at St. James Pipe Organ, morphing into a powerful progressive rock tune “Father O.S.A.”   This hinted at DeYoung’s later work as well.   “Earl of Roseland” is a solid tune about the band’s Chicago roots — DeYoung looking back at their earlier days even before they hit the big time.  The concluding song, DeYoung’s “I’m Gonna Make you Feel it” (sung by James Young) is perhaps the weakest song, but still catchy and has the sound of what could be a good live tune.   The band also worked in virtuoso individual bits of musicianship creating an album I think stands alongside even their multi-platinum work for worthwhile listening.

The Serpent is Rising (1973)

When Lady originally failed to chart and Styx II appeared a failure, the band decided to shift gears, with John Curulewski taking a creative lead.   This album — a concept album about sex (the serpent is rising means what you might imagine it to mean) is more progressive, stranger and less accessible than the other three.   It begins with “Witch Wolf,” a James Young song that sounds more like his later Styx work.   Dennis DeYoung’s solos are missing, save the solid “The Grove of Eglantine,” supposedly about a woman’s vagina.  It’s a decent song, though DeYoung later said he was pushing himself to write in styles that didn’t feel natural, thinking that the failure of Styx II was a rejection of his song writing.   DeYoung also wrote “Jonas Psalter” and “Winner Take All,” though James Young sang them.  About a pirate, Jonas hints at DeYoung’s later theme of success not bringing satisfaction.

The album really showcased Curulewski’s avante garde sensibilities.  My kids love the “coda” to “As Bad as This” (the weakest song on the album), which is a delightful tune called “Plexiglass toilet.”   With lines like “mama says don’t belch and fart” and “wipe the butt clean with the paper, make it nice for everyone,” it was a hit with my eight and five year old sons.  It’s got a fun and humorous edge, a bit Zappa like, and apparently was often requested on Dr. Dimento.   Strange, but Curulewski’s humor added something the band needed at the time.   Curulewski’s “22 Years” is a solid rocker, and the sound effects on the spoken “Krakatoa” are interesting if not exactly commercial.  The album ends with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” symbolizing a sexual climax and interestingly being the second album in a row with a nod to classical music.

My take is that while interesting, humorous at times, and experimental, Curulewski’s vision didn’t fit the strengths of the other band members.   They needed commercial success and this flopped.  They weren’t good enough as a progressive band to live off experimental work — only Curulewski had his soul in that, it seemed.    The cover art was cool though!  The quickly put out another album.

Man of Miracles (1974)

Man of Miracles marked a significant improvement over The Serpent is Rising, and the band clearly started to mature as song writers and studio artists.   I enjoy this album almost as much as Styx II, and in terms of style and performance I think it actually is their best Wooden Nickel album.   Dennis DeYoung is back, though the original album rejected one of his best tunes, “Unfinished Song” in favor of “Lies,” a cover.  “Lies” flopped and “Best Thing” (from Styx I) later replaced it.  In a 1980 re-release “Unfinished Song” finally made it — it might have been a hit if put on the album!  DeYoung’s “Song for Suzanne” is haunting and shows stylistic growth, while “Golden Lark” really shows off what would become ‘the voice of Styx.’   He also added “Evil Eyes,” a strong, haunting rock ballad, and “Christopher, Mr. Christopher,” one of my favorites.  It’s lyrically compelling, based on the story of St. Christopher, his apparent lowered status in the 60s, and a look at the role of faith in the life of an average woman.  Curulewski and Young teamed up on some good rockers, “Rock & Roll Feeling,” and “Havin’ a Ball.”  Curulewski’s humor and progressive influences waned, and Young and DeYoung’s title song showed the kind of dramatic edge that would give the band later success.

The album flopped, despite some strong moments, and it appeared Styx was going to be another one of those bands that “got close,” but couldn’t quite find the right song or chemistry to break through.   They had made quality albums, but hadn’t found their identity.   Or so they thought.

When Lady broke after the release of “Man of Miracles,” the album Styx II suddenly went gold and hit # 20 on the billboard album chart.   DeYoung and the band had thought that his style of song writing had been rejected, but in reality it hadn’t really been noticed.   “Lady” was a number one hit, though it’s late break out meant it peaked in different markets at different times, topping out at # 6 on the charts nationally.   Styx left Wooden Nickel (causing a law suit) and signed up with A&M.   Although there would be two other albums before they broke out big time, Equinox and Crystal Ball would show a more polished and focused Styx, a band that knew who it was.

Curulewski would leave after Equinox, the band was drifting away from his vision and his substance abuse was a problem.  Tommy Shaw would replace Curulewski’s humor and avant garde with ‘good ol’ boy’ blue grass and acoustic influences.  He also was attractive and charming, a missing element from the original lineup.

Still, as I listen to the Wooden Nickel recordings over and over, enjoy the cover art, and appreciate what that struggling band created, I find I enjoy their blockbusters that much more.  The band worked hard, paid its dues, struggled to find its identity.   It also reinforces the fact that Dennis DeYoung is the soul of Styx, while James Young is the body.  Young’s guitar and drive, DeYoung’s voice and lyrics were a dominant force from the start.   More than anything else, Styx was a marriage of James Young and Dennis DeYoung’s styles and attitudes.   Two Chicago rockers creating a legend.

It’s too bad that marriage ended in divorce.   I still hope for reconciliation.

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Rain!

Here is a great tune for our East coast weather, written and performed by Dennis DeYoung (inspired in part by Katrina), this video matches the song Rain with images from those past hurricanes, as well as other disasters, which I found on Youtube.  It looks like it was made by someone named “scarlet envelope” a couple weeks after Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008:

It’s from the album One Hundred Years from Now which you can find at dennisdeyoung.com.   It is a superb album from one of rock’s all time greats.  The song’s been running through my head all day as I’ve watched coverage of Irene.   (By the way, my first ever post on this blog was about hurricanes – Katrina vs. Nargis).

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Borrowed Time

Continuing with the Styx theme, one song stands out in thinking about the chaos in Washington surrounding the negotiations on raising the debt ceiling.

In their 1979 triple Platinum album Cornerstone, one of the best songs was “Borrowed Time,” co-written by Dennis De Young and Tommy Shaw.   The song was supposedly a reflection on the US in the late seventies, but more poignantly it predicted the path the country would take the next thirty years.  The lyrics read, in part:

“I had my car, and I made the scene
Didn’t give a damn about no gasoline
They can go to hell
My friend we never thought about the world
And its realities
The promised land was ours
We were the Great Society

I’m so confused by the things I read, I need the truth
But the truth is, I don’t know who to believe
The left say yes, and the right says no
I’m in between and the more I learn
Well, the less that I know
I got to make a show
Livin’ high, living fine
Livin’ high on borrowed time

When this song came out, the US debt to GDP ratio was 30%.   Our debt as a proportion of GDP would double to 60% by 1990 as the Reagan Administration infamously claimed “budget deficits don’t matter” and created the appearance of prosperity through deficit spending.   Given that oil prices were going down as well, people thought things were going fantastically, especially when the Soviet Union fell and the US won the Cold War.

In the 90s the current account deficit, which also started growing in 1981 (basically meaning that we were borrowing from foreigners to finance our consumption) rose to new heights as the US experienced the dot.com bubble.    Much of that was also an illusory economy, but at least the budget was balanced.   After 2000 the borrow and spend mentality continued, the current account deficit grew, and these imbalances finally exploded into a deep recession in 2008.

Thirty years of living high on borrowed time, and now the politicians and the public demand a quick fix.   There isn’t one.   We’ve been living beyond our means for thirty years.   Even when the federal budget was in balance, private borrowing was soaring (and the private sector is no better than the government in this regard — public debt is about 80% of GDP now, private and public is near 400% of GDP).    We consumed on credit, even as we as a nation were producing less.  Consider this analogy:  what if you as an individual were burning 2000 calories a day, but consuming 2100?

It might seem like your eating wasn’t out of line; 100 calories is half a candy bar.   But in 15 years you’d find that your weight would have gone from 175 to 320.   In 30 years you’d be up to 470.   You’d experience massive health problems and you’d find your excess of 100 calories a day — a tiny snack — yielded tremendous problems.   There would be no quick fix, you’d have to eat less and exercise more to lose weight, and it would take awhile.

The problem is the same with us — we have to spend less and increase revenue to get our budget under control, and find a way to produce more while consuming less.   That’s what a recession forces you to do, there’s no escaping it.   To blame Obama for not “fixing” this (or to blame it all on Bush) misses the point.   We’ve done this to ourselves as a society, the politicians can no more bail us than a doctor can undo decades of overeating.

Here’s a tidbit from the Washington Post:    “In 2001, revenues were at 19.5 percent of gross domestic product and spending was at 18.6 percent of GDP. That was our surplus. In 2010, revenues were at 14.9 percent of GDP while spending was at 23.9 percent. That’s our deficit: Revenues are down and spending is up.”

As we argue about whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, note how we’ve decreased taxes and raised spending at the same time.   I gave this graph last year, but it’s worth repeating

In the last thirty years most of the wealth gain has gone to the top 1%, gaining 281%, while the top 20% gained a total 0f 95%.   The middle fifth and lower (60% of the population) did not gain enough to keep up with inflation.   Moreover, as graphs posted last December show, the US tax system is the least progressive in the industrialized world.  Our wealthiest are the richest in the world, while our poorest are in the same category as Greece or the Czech Republic.    Finally, tax increases do no more harm to the economy than spending cuts; in fact, since money that would be gained by tax rate hikes otherwise often go to buying foreign goods or paying down loans, cutting spending hurts the economy more than tax increases do.

So it’s a no brainer.   The wealthiest, who have had their taxes cut dramatically in the last 30 years, and who are taxed a historic lows, and lower than in any other industrialized state, have the capacity to pay slightly higher taxes to help us deal with the budget crisis and getting our house back in order.    The Republican refusal to allow any kind of tax increase is based on fantasy.   It’s like a religious belief of their base that taxes are always bad.  Sometimes, you need to raise them.   If Democrats have to accept that some of their programs need to be cut, well, Republicans have to accept that the rich might pay a little more in taxes.   Even with Obama’s proposals they’d pay less than in other industrialized states, and less than Reagan’s tax proposals back in the 80s.

So as the fiasco continues, as the negotiators try to prevent financial meltdown, the House Republicans are acting like petulant children, sticking their lips out and saying “we’ll never cut taxes, we don’t want to compromise, you have to do it our way.”   House Speaker John Boehner has been more adult, but he doesn’t seem to be able to control his party.   He’s like the dad in the station wagon screaming to the kids to behave but they ignore him.   Cantor is like the mom taking the kids side, leaving the poor dad unable to control the situation.   No wonder the public gives Congress such low rankings!

This crisis is a bipartisan creation.   30 years of economic imbalances won’t be solved overnight.   Adults have to make compromises and sometimes do what they don’t want to do.    The Democrats will have to make cuts, including entitlement reform.   Republicans will have to accept tax increases on the wealthy.   Americans will have to learn that you can’t live 30 years on borrowed time and not have difficult adjustments to recover.

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Stalinist Styx?

John Panozzo, James Young, Tommy Shaw, Chuck Panozzo, & Dennis DeYoung

I’ve been in the process of taking my over 200 vinyl LPs and putting them onto CDs.   Admittedly both forms of music storage are obsolete, but at least I have access to the music on CDs.   I’ve been really enjoying the early Styx albums: Styx I, Styx II, The Serpent is Rising, Miracles (a re-release of Man of Miracles, with the track “Unfinished Song”) and Equinox.    They generated surprisingly good, early 70s American progressive rock, standing out from the start with tremendous vocal harmonies and solid musicianship.

I decided to go to the Styx website.   Now, I’m not one to take sides when a band splits.   They have their reasons.   I really like the album Cyclorama, which came out after Dennis De Young left the band.   Tommy Shaw is probably the best pure songwriter on the band, though De Young had more vision and better lyrics.   I am perfectly content accepting a new Styx line up.    At least, I was until I visited their website.

In telling the history of the band, Dennis De Young’s name is completely absent.  They do not mention the LP Kilroy Was Here, or their 1990s albums Edge of the Century and Brave New World.   In a way reminiscent of how the Communist party in Stalinist Russia would remove people from photos and rewrite history to “erase” a figure who had fallen from grace, they simply wipe De Young out of their history.

To be sure, they mention some songs.   They note that Lady was their break out hit, but even in describing their successful years they downplay anything related to De Young, casting the history of the band as something less than it was.   That causes me to lose respect for the band in its current incarnation.  Are they so sensitive and defensive that they can’t even admit their past was shaped in large part by a singer/songwriter they had parted paths with?   Without De Young, Styx probably would have a history that would read like the history of Head East!

De Young’s songs include Lady, Come Sail Away, Mr. Roboto, Babe, The Best of Times and Show Me the Way, among others.  These were the hits that propelled the band into mega-super stardom with four straight triple platinum LPs and sold out arenas.   These hits are the reason a band using the name Styx can still draw crowds.

To be sure, Dennis De Young could not have done it without Styx.   The band’s sensibilities were a force that helped guide his songwriting — his solo work is good, but having to satisfy the band brought out the best of him.    Moreover, it was a group effort, even early on.

The band formed on the Chicago south side back in 1961 when De Young joined Chuck and John Panozzo (they were about 14 at the time) named Tradewinds.    Later John Curulewski and James Young joined, both excellent singers whose voices combined with De Young’s to create the strong three part harmonies that defined the band from the start.  By the time they signed with Wooden Nickel records (a subsidiary of RCA) they had become Styx, cultivating a working class progressive rock sound that permeates their career.   When “Lady” hit the charts big time, their identity crystallized.   The song was from the album Styx II, but didn’t hit until after the release of the fourth album, Man of Miracles.   With a hit and knowing they had a chance to reach the next level, the band left RCA to join A&M (resulting in law suits) and releasing the album Equinox.    “Suite Madame Blue” emerged from that effort as a bi-centennial reflection on the US that hinted at De Young’s power in writing  seductive songs with social commentary.  The song was a huge hit in Canada, but in the US Equinox was a commercial disappointment.   With only one true hit and increased pressures, Curulewski left the band just as they were about to go on tour.

This created a crisis for a group so close but yet so far from hitting it big.  Curulewski was integral to the harmonies and had been the most progressive influence.   The band did a quick search and found the missing link to big time success — a southern rocker named Tommy Shaw.   Tommy was attractive to girls (the band had lacked that), had an excellent voice (he would actually improve the harmonies) and was a superb songwriter.  His guitar work was above Curulewski’s, but the next album Crystal Ball still failed to attract a larger fan base.

The break out album was The Grand Illusion, with the hit Come Sail Away hitting number 3 on the charts.   From then on the band filled stadiums and released three more triple platinum records, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone, and Paradise Theater.   Derided by the critics as being too mainstream and pop oriented, Styx nonetheless spoke to a generation of fans who didn’t want the cutting edge “strange” stuff that critics admire, preferring instead a combination of power and grace, accessible melodies with strong lyrics.

De Young’s lyrics showed him to be a cynical critic of the emerging consumer society in Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight and his the powerful commentary about America in decline in the concept album Paradise Theater is as relevant now as it was in 1980.     James Young could concentrate his writing on contributing one solid rocker per album (highlights are Miss America and Half Penny Two Penny) and Shaw’s introspective and well crafted songs created a perfect chemistry.

Alas, that tore the band apart.   The breaking point was De Young’s insistence on visionary concept albums like the theatrical Kilroy was Here.    De Young’s vision for Kilroy may have been an over-reach, though he deserves respect for pushing the edges at the start of the MTV era.   Mixing music and drama was at the core of Styx’s success.    It seems that Shaw and Young resented the fact that their artistic drives were being muffled in order to give De Young’s vision life.   That lead them to resent the power ballads that meant they could live lavish life styles.   De Young probably did not fully understand how much his success came from the dynamics of the band.   In 1984 they parted ways.

Styx came back for Edge of the Century  in 1990, but without Shaw.   Shaw, Young and De Young were back in the 1999 album Brave New World, but they did not collaborate in a manner that created success in the past.   In different studios they patched together music that sounded more like their solo efforts than Styx.   John Panozzo died of alcoholism in 1996, while Chuck became sick with AIDS, coming out as gay in 2001.   The new Styx still has Young and Shaw as its core.   Others, notably Glen Burtnik, have come and gone in the interim.

All this is well and good.   If they’d stayed together they could not have continued their triple platinum success.  Their sound defined an era, but eras shift.    They’d have had a few more chart toppers, but time would have claimed its prize in any event.   While I enjoy and recommend Cyclorama, the only studio album without De Young, it didn’t seem like a real Styx album with him absent (though Shaw has become a better and more compelling song writer over the years).

What I don’t get is the effort to deny obvious reality and write a history of the band on their website that ignores a founding member who has been part of all but one of 14 studio albums and who penned the hits that gave them lives as successful rock stars.   They don’t have to like him.   They can resent him, be angry with him, and consider him a jerk.   But to simply wipe him from their history reeks of a weird Stalin-like attempt to re-write the past.   They can’t of course — for a generation De Young is the voice of Styx, a web site can’t change that.

Which is a shame.  I want to be a fan of both Dennis De Young in his solo career and the current Shaw-Young based Styx incarnation.  Shaw is a great song writer, Young brings intelligence and power.   But the website leaves a bitter taste; if Styx comes to Maine I probably won’t trek down to see them.

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The end of the “Culture Wars”?

Back in the 1980s a new force hit the American political scene.  It was represented by Jim and Tammi Baker of the PTL (for “Praise the Lord”) club, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority, ” and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.   Rising preachers like Jimmy Swaggert promised a Christian renewal of American politics and culture.   Their support was widely credited with helping Ronald Reagan defy the odds and become President in 1980, and they brought a new energy into the Republican Party.

This led to what some called the “culture wars,” where social conservatives fought to win back the soul of America, to re-assert the dominance of Christianity and so-called “family values” in US culture.   The secular left saw this as a threat, the rock band Styx put out a whole album, Kilroy was here on the premise of a moral majority Falwell like take over of the country — one that would ban rock and roll and enforce morality.   The focus of the “Christian right” was to stop the spread of the “homosexual agenda,” to end abortion rights in America, and to halt the decaying and to them decadent cultural trends that they argued started in the 60s with the hippy and anti-war movements.

On Saturday, December 18th, the Senate passed a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) meaning that soon openly gay men and women will be able to serve in the armed forces.  Recently many states have allowed legal marriage for gays, and opinion polls show that public attitudes on homosexuality have turned around completely in the last thirty years.   This is especially the case amongst young people.   Abortion rights remain, and in fact the abortion issue has faded in salience in the voting public.

Americans remain far more religious than Europeans, but as a force, social conservatism seems to be down and perhaps out.   Moderate John McCain led the fight against repeal of DADT, and even there his argument wasn’t about any kind of ‘homosexual agenda,’ but rather concern this is being done too fast while the country is at war.  When President Clinton first tried to remove the restriction from gays serving in the military, he was hit with an immediate political backlash, it was too much for American culture in 1993.   DADT was put in place to retreat from that effort.   Even Democrats thought it too much.   In 2010 six Republicans joined to vote for the repeal, and no one suggests that President Obama will suffer politically — indeed, not passing it would have hurt him more.

While the “tea party” has strong social conservative roots, remaining a force in the GOP, most Republicans lean towards economic libertarianism, with a desire for smaller government.  In popular culture as well, the idea that more wholesome values will replace the “decadence” of the post-60s transformation of television, movies and music has faded.  The public has rejected social conservatism.

What does this mean?   Especially after conservatives and Republicans enjoyed winning back the House, is it fair to say that the culture wars of the 80s and 90s are over?   At one level, no.  In pockets of the bible belt social conservatism is strong, and clearly it will take time for gay marriage and other cultural changes to become incorporated in the culture.  There will be battles to try halt those changes, and the social conservatives will win some.   But they’re fighting on the defense, and they are unlikely to turn back changes made, or advance.   The days of the big name televangelists are not over, but today’s preachers are more inclusive and tolerant than the Swaggerts, Bakers and Falwells.

Meanwhile, the youngest Americans are increasingly raised without religious training, as church attendance continues to decline.   At the same time, many Christian faiths have embraced gay rights, assert pro-choice positions on abortion, and build interfaith dialogues with Muslims and Jews.   Christians have shifted from waging a kind of holy war to win back the culture to instead emphasizing Christian values and focusing on love, charity and humility.

Falwell has died, Swaggert was downed by a prostitution scandal, sex and drug scandals destroyed the PTL Club, and although Robertson’s 700 club still exists, he has gone from being a player in the GOP to making the news primarily due to outlandish statements, covered more for their entertainment value.   Where once Phyllis Schafly vowed to bring back traditional womanhood, now conservatives embrace Sarah Palin, who hardly represents the kind of traditional view on the role of women espoused by Schafly and others in the 80s.

What does this mean?  Basically, social conservatism was the last gasp of the “old guard,” fighting against cultural changes sweeping across the US and the industrialized world.   They probably never had a chance, western civilization has been secularizing and humanizing at a steady pace for over 300 years years, that’s not something you stop on a dime, especially when economic and technological growth is expanding.

Yet while we’re not about to go back to conservative social ideals, the victory of a humanist cultural ideal remains Pyrrhic if questions of meaning and value are satisfied through purely material and even consumerist perspectives.   What drove social conservatism was a sense that life’s meaning and value went beyond mere material and secular pursuits.  They looked back to the values they remembered from the past, and wanted to recapture them.  In our progressive, modern culture, that’s not possible.  However, there is a role for religion.

What we need is reconciliation between the faithful and the secular, between diverse religions and atheists.   We need to find values built on mutual respect and shared principles.  Whether embraced out of spiritual faith or a rational sense of what is best for a quality of life, we need to get beyond negative fights (over rights and specific issues) and pursue positive ideals.  A lot of Christians are doing this now, and interfaith dialogues are growing.   Radical atheists, like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, are to rational materialism what Robertson and Falwell were to Christianity — extremists whose inability to respect the other side leads to conflict and misunderstanding.

Most of us think there is more to life than material consumption.   It may be a psychological need for self-actualization, a religious connection with God, or a spiritual sense of the transcendent.  But if we can agree to disagree about how we see and understand the world, and agree to try to find common values and mutual respect, the culture wars will not only be over, but will have ended with success for both sides.   Sure, the extremists will continue to lob rhetorical grenades at one another, driven perhaps by their own psychological needs more than anything else.  But Christian love, atheistic rationality, Islamic values and Jewish traditions all point to the superiority of reconciliation and cooperation over anger and fighting.

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