RIP Terry Callier 1945-2012

Two songs about missing people when they’re gone. One protest song…

And one straight-up masterpiece…

And a freedom song which makes my heart melt:


George McGovern 1922-2012

George McGovern had been on my mind in the days before he died. I’d decided to read Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 for election season and was struck by the fondness that even somebody as brutally disillusioned as Mr Gonzo felt for the man from South Dakota. I became fascinated by the ’72 election while researching my book — I also recommend Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus and Rick Perlstein’s epic Nixonland – because of McGovern’s unusual decency and the scale of his defeat. For the US left it was like the end of The Empire Strikes Back. He lost to Nixon – Nixon! – by a historic landslide, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

How to explain such a crushing loss? Was it mainly down to the mishandling of running mate Thomas Eagleton’s history of mental health problems? The failure of the Youth Vote to turn out in force? The false but potent “amnesty, abortion and acid” slur that alienated a Middle America terrified of any possible return to the chaos of the late 60s? The attempted assassination of George Wallace, which caused him to leave the race and not split the Silent Majority vote? Nixon’s phony promise of imminent peace in Vietnam? McGovern’s own muted charisma and insufficient campaignining skills? All of the above, probably. The insurgent energy that led McGovern to victory in the primaries, overtaking party machine favourites like Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, couldn’t be mimicked on the national stage and in fact put many more cautious voters off. Despite his passionate antiwar views (“I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight”), he was a fairly moderate liberal, but his followers were more radical than America could handle in 1972. (As I explained in this article last week, McGovern’s was the first candidate to inspire benefit gigs by mainstream rock stars.)

Ron Rosenbaum, who covered the campaign, asked over the weekend what might have happened had the Watergate scandal taken off earlier, sunk Nixon’s re-election and spared America the most painful and disenchanting episode in presidential politics. That’s what made McGovern’s defeat a tragedy for the whole country, not just the left.

McGovern knew he would lose but thought he could bank on at least eight states, and he took years to recover from the defeat. Hunter S Thompson’s book ends with a post-election Q&A with McGovern, who seems both shellshocked and dignified, which is a hard combination to pull off. I found this passage moving when I read it a fortnight ago and even moreso today.

HST: In a sense you were running a sixties campaign in the seventies.

McGovern: Yeah… We were running a campaign that might have won in 1968. Might have won. Might have… You know, all of this is speculating, Hunter. I don’t think any of us really know what’s going on. I think there’s always that pendulum action in American politics, and I expect Nixon to run into trouble in the next few years. I think there’s going to be disillusionment over his war settlement. I think the economic problems are not going to get better and the problems in the great cities are going to worsen, and it may be that by ’76 somebody can come along and win on a kind of platform that I was running on in ’72.

HST: I don’t know. It worries me and I’ve noticed the predominant feeling, particlarly among students, seems to be one of bewilderment and despair. What the hell happened and where do we go from here and…

McGovern: Yeah. The letters they’re sending in here, though, are — Jesus, they’re encouraging. That’s what kept my spirits from collapsing. The pendulum did take a big swing but it’s going to come back. I really believe that.

I also like this exchange from a 2006 interview:

Hanging on the wall just outside his office is a beautifully scripted copy of a familair prayer. he pauses to extol the artwork, then rejects the sentiment.

“God,” the prayer begins, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

“No,” says McGovern, when asked if the prayer represents a personal credo. “I keep trying to change them.”

Endless war: a few thoughts on online debate

Recently, online debate has been getting me down. I love the idea of it, obviously. The free exchange of views is one of the great strengths of the internet, alongside Gangnam Style parodies and cribbing from Wikipedia. But I’ve argued with a lot of people on Twitter and website comment threads this year and it has always left me feeling worse. Over the past fortnight two particular Twitterstorms have convinced me that something is wrong about the way we deal with disagreement online. We resort to entrenched positions, self-righteousness, dogma, bullying and abuse instead of even attempting to understand alternative views and we generate so much heat for so little light.

By “We” I include myself. The worst thing about the increasingly toxic atmosphere is how it poisons everybody with bad habits. The following suggestions for bringing more sanity and empathy to online debate don’t come from a position of superiority. Several are memos to myself.

1. Read the piece or thread properly. If you’ve got time to attack someone’s opinion then you’ve got time to work out exactly what you’re attacking. The number of newspaper website comments that address the headline alone indicates that this is a challenge to some people but if you haven’t even read the article then your opinion is frankly worthless. Likewise, I’ve seen people joining Twitterstorms late with only a fourth-hand caricature of the debate to go by. Read the Twitter feeds of the people involved. It takes minutes.

2. Don’t take comments out of context. A tweet is not an essay or a policy document. It’s often an off-the-cuff comment, sometimes addressed to a third party, and we all know how allergic to nuance the 140-character format is, so it’s absurd to assume that you can extrapolate someone’s worldview from a single tweet. In the Twitterstorms surrounding Diane Abbott in January and Caitlin Moran this month, individual tweets were wrenched out of context and reported as if they were statements of an extreme belief carved in stone. Whether the people doing this were malicious or just lazy the result was the same.

3. Don’t shut people up. Everybody has a right to express an opinion. On the subject of abortion, say, a woman has more right than a man to do so but it doesn’t mean the man has none at all. I disagreed with almost every word of Mehdi Hasan’s column about being left-wing and pro-life, and many people proved able to take it apart piece by piece without claiming, as others did, that he should never have written it. Unless, of course, you think it’s OK for other people to shut you up too. This intolerance is particularly galling when it comes from supposed liberals. This piece, which I came across while writing my blog, puts it perfectly: “The motivations are… I WOULD LIKE TO DERAIL THIS CONVERSATION AND HAVE AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE WITNESS HOW RIGHT I AM. I don’t care if your politics are progressive and your focus is on social justice: if you’re shouting at people online and refusing to have a dialogue, you’re bullying.”

4. Don’t label people. Once you call someone, say, a racist (even if they’re saying racist things) you’ve lost them for good. It’s human nature to resist negative categorisation so stick to describing their actions or statements rather than their entire personalities. Some labels are virtually meaningless anyway. Left-wingers accuse their opponents of being middle-class and complacent. Right-wingers accuse theirs of being middle-class and smug. Music fans describe any band they don’t like as middle-class. Often this turns out to be factually inaccurate but in any case it is never, ever a deal-closer. It’s just another way of telling someone to shut up.

5. Don’t assume that other people are acting in bad faith. On music threads you constantly see: “You only pretend to like Band X because you’re a hipster and/or middle-class wanker.” In political debates it’s: “You’re only saying this because you have a book to promote/are part of the media elite/are scared of your corporate paymasters/are a middle-class wanker.” If only as a thought experiment, act as if people who hold opposing opinions are sincere about them. (Unless it’s Brendan “Challops 4 U” O’Neill.)

6. Don’t be afraid to apologise. That faulty statistic you grabbed off the internet in a furious hurry? That insensitively worded tweet? Say you were wrong. This isn’t a presidential debate. It’s not a ruinous “gaffe” — it’s a simple error.

7. Don’t tear apart people with whom you have plenty in common. The history of the left is full of people who agree on 90% of issues wrestling each other to the ground over the 10% on which they don’t, while the right point and laugh. This 10% is important and constantly changing — one generation’s marginal issue becomes the next’s fundamental principle — but at least try and keep some perspective.

8. Don’t feel compelled to have an opinion on everything. This one’s mainly for the serial offenders on comment threads who never have any useful insight but feel that the world would be a poorer piece without their contribution, which is usually “yawn”, “TL;DR” or “Why has this been published? I’ve never heard of this person.”

9. Having a mob behind you doesn’t make you right. Sometimes it’s just a lot of people being wrong together.

10. Self-righteousness is not a virtue even if it makes you feel good.

11. Don’t automatically adopt a kneejerk position. If I see a comment which says “typical Guardianista” or “you lefties” I don’t need to read any further, because I know that this isn’t a pressing issue for the commenter, just another skirmish in a lifelong war of attrition. Those on the left are just as a guilty when it comes to hunkering down in their silos. Sometimes people who occupy a different place on the political spectrum to you have a worthwhile opinion on a particular issue. Endless war is wearying and embittering and changes nothing.

12. Don’t whine if you get blocked or moderated. Before the internet newspapers could decline to publish certain letters and people could leave the room if they were sick of a face-to-face argument. Now we’re all free to respond to whoever we like but we’re not entitled to it. A comment thread is run by someone else and if they don’t think you’re abiding by their rules tough luck. It’s not an infringement of your civil liberties so don’t start acting like you’re Aung San Suu Kyi. On Twitter, an argument that goes on and on is a psychic drag. Even as you go about your day that blue bird icon on your phone is yet another reminder that somebody out there thinks you’re an arsehole, and then you feel compelled either to respond (usually in a foul temper) or remove yourself from Twitter for a while. Or — wait a minute — you can just block them and get back to the Gangnam Style parodies. I’ve been blocked by James Delingpole, which seems a little prissy from someone who calls his opponents “libtards”, but that’s up to him. I’m not going to become one of those drama addicts whose Twitter bio is a list of all the people who have blocked them.

13. Don’t @-bomb (© Grace Dent). Either address someone directly or talk about them behind their back, old-school style. Inserting their @name into a hostile tweet, knowing that they’ll therefore see it, is a Mean Girls move.

14. Don’t do sneering impressions of people (“WAAAAHHH, I’m @broadsheetwriter and I’m so misunderstood!”) unless you’re 10 or under.

15. Don’t call people Nazis even if they are, basically, Nazis.

16. Don’t call people trolls unless they’re actually trolls, ie they’re saying provocative things they don’t believe simply to get a reaction for lulz. Someone who genuinely disagrees with you is not a troll.

17. Don’t be abusive. This should be obvious but it’s not because being abusive is fun and cathartic, and then you try and justify it by saying that the other person deserved that abuse. You’re probably deluding yourself.

18. Show some empathy. Unlike your actual sociopathic trolls most people have feelings. It doesn’t hurt to remember this every now and then.

19. Don’t feel obliged to weigh in straight away. The worthwhile outcome of any Twitterstorm happens a few hours, or even days, later, when the thoughtful, non-abusive blogs appear. They’re the headline act. The Twitterstorm is just people throwing bottles of piss at the support band.

20. Don’t self-valorise. You are not one brave, isolated voice sticking it to The Man. You are not the little boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes. The internet is full of people telling the emperor he’s naked even when he’s not, and then feeling very pleased with themselves.

21. Don’t stink up the room. That comment thread you’re dominating with your interminable slanging match? The one that might have been a worthwhile, hospitable place? You’ve fucked it up for everybody.

22. Stop trying to “win”. Everybody likes to think that their arguments are so wonderful that either their opponents will emerge bloodied and bowed, fashioning a scrap of tattered clothing into a flag of surrender, or the invisible jury of the internet will declare a winner. This never happens because this isn’t a college debating society. Better to emerge from a debate on good terms, having enriched your view of an issue, than to batter someone into resentful silence.

23. Let it go. This is the hard bit. You know that feeling the French call l’esprit de l’escalier? That unbeatable zinger that only occurs to you after the argument is over? Well thanks to Twitter it’s never too late! It can grind on for days, long past the point where it’s doing anybody any good. Recently I was reading my daughter a bedtime story while silently retracing a heated Twitter argument I’d had that day until she had to ask why my jaw was clenched and brow furrowed. This did not fill me with pride and joy. Actually it made me feel like an addict, but at least most addicts get to have some fun at some point in the process.

24. If all of this is TL;DR, just read this one. Don’t be a dick about it

Glenn Beck and Muse

Last Sunday I published an interview with Muse in the Observer. I asked Matt Bellamy to define his politics because I was intrigued by the way that the band’s album The Resistance, and in particular the song Uprising, had been embraced by Glenn Beck, the Tea Party and right-wing libertarians in the US, when I assumed that the lyrics came from a more left-wing angle. For example, new song Animals is a ferocious attack on predatory capitalism which has more in common with Occupy Wall Street than it does with the small-government, free-market values of the libertarian right: “Amortise/Downsize/Lay off/Kill yourself/Come on do us all a favour.”

He explained (quote taken unedited from the original transcript): “In the US the conspiracy theory subculture has been hijacked by the right to try to take down people like Obama and put forward right-wing libertarianism, which is very popular in America. I’d define myself as a left-leaning libertarian – more in the realm of Noam Chomsky. Because some of the songs talk about the strength of the human spirit, that can easily be adopted by libertarians of any persuasion. I think libertarians in America don’t realise there are different ways of being a libertarian. It doesn’t all have to be about guns and land protection, y’know? So yeah, I do find it weird. Uprising was requested by so many politicians in America for use in their rallies and we turned them down on a regular basis.”

I just received an email from Glenn Beck’s PR with an open letter to Bellamy. I’m no fan of Beck — in the piece I describe him as a “swivel-eyed Fox News demagogue” – but I found it interesting that he’d responded and thought it was worth posting the letter here:

Dear Matthew,

I read your comments in the Guardian via Rolling Stone last week and feel like with a little work we could better understand each other.

As uncomfortable as it might be for you, I will still play your songs loudly. To me your songs are anthems that beg for choruses of unity and pose the fundamental question facing the world today – can man rule himself?

In the Venn Diagram of American politics, where the circles of crimson and blue overlap, there’s a place where you and I meet. It’s a place where guys who cling to their religion, rights, and guns, connect with godless, clinched-fist-tattoo, guys.

You seem to have a pretty good grasp of comparative U.S. and European politics, but maybe there’s a pattern that you’re underestimating. Throughout history, leaders have used music to lull young people into a sense of security and euphoria. They’ve used artists to create the illusion that they can run a country that keeps all the good and wipes out all the bad. Think Zurich 1916. Think artists getting behind guys like Lenin and Trotsky. Think of pop culture’s role in the Arab Spring. The youth rises up, power structures crumble, and worse leaders are inserted.

America, on the other hand, does not rely on leaders — we rely on the individual. Our country was built on the principles of mercy, justice, and charity — we ultimately believe that man left alone is good. That is a primary reason I disagree with Chomsky and others that you’ve touted.

American Libertarians understand that smaller government gives people freedom — the freedom to earn or lose, eat or starve, own or sell. The potential for wild success and happiness is tempered by an equal chance of failure. And it is all up to the individual to take control of their destiny.

This has been a debate since the founding of America, one that has often gotten confused. Even during the revolution — a period filled with the greatest minds to ever discuss the idea of freedom — there were the divisions that continue today. Robespierre or George Washington. OWS or the TEA Party.

Thomas Paine didn’t see the difference at first either — sometimes the difference is too subtle.

Yet the question is an easy one: Do you believe man can rule himself? Or does he need someone ruling over him to force him to be good and charitable?

That is the fundamental divide and everything else follows. Even though faith was important to our American patriots none of them forced Paine to believe. He chose his course and in the end is remembered as a critical patriot in establishing man’s first real freedom.

They understood that we don’t all have to be in the same boat. But rather, focused on the star chart: Are you headed toward freedom or despotism?

The power that American Libertarians like me want to pull down is power that limits the individuals right to roam and create.

Matthew, I realize that converts are pretty hard to come by when the stakes are so high and the spotlight so bright, but I thank you for singing words that resonate with man in his struggle to be free.

I wish I could leave well enough alone and just be quiet…

…but I’ve had recurring nightmares that I was loved for who I am and missed the opportunity to be a better man.

Good luck on the new record.