Saturday, November 8, 2008

New Beginnings: Part One - continued

I (cont.): (i) Arthur Koestler, (ii) Cold War Kids and (iii)

As I've indicated before, this set of posts is intended to express some of my feelings about the Obama victory and to tease out some of the relations between culture and politics on the blog. It's about reflecting on a moment, an undeniably historic occasion but also one which is tied into ordinary things.

This past week - as in, the period leading up to the election result - I've been reading through The Invisible Writing, the second half, beginning in 1932, of Arthur Koestler's autobiography. The action is entirely coincidental to the election - it's been on my shelf for about six months - but nevertheless, the book contains some deep political history, and is just generally a fascinating thing to read during the last days of a doomed Republican campaign and the emergence of a transformational, left-of-centre Democratic candidate as President-Elect of the USA.

That would ideally be a post for Steady Diet of Books - I will hopefully keep that for one of Koestler's novels - but here I'll pair it with an album that I've been listening to a lot this and previous weeks as well. The Cold War Kids' second album, Loyalty to Loyalty is a bit of a slow burner and a fair improvement on their previous Robbers and Cowards, but what it most represents in this context is a small collection of semi-mainstream and semi-left field albums that are coming at me from quintessentially American culture, or counter-culture as it may be; the jazz-rock blues of Cold War Kids, or the faux-Springsteen post-punk of the Gaslight Anthem's The '59 Sound.

And finally, there's the overtly political internet culture of this 2008 election. I visit Organizing Grievances frequently, as it's the blogging home of fellow Hoover (the band, not the president...) aficianado, Lex Dexter but also a group of Oregonian union-involved lefties (hence the name). The partisanship can't necessarily be described as good-humoured, but it is usually quite funny. For more statistical knowledge I head over to the excellent site - Electoral Predictions Done Right. It's from there that I got a well-founded certainty about the result, more so than from snapshot polling and trickle-down Republican spin. (The image above is a composite of - bottom -their final projection - and top - their 'call' as yesterday of the electoral college [since when, they have called the Omaha district of Nebraska for Obama, and Missouri for McCain].)


"Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905... For six years (1932-38) he was an active member of the Communist Party, and was captured by Franco's troops in the Spanish Civil War and imprisoned under sentence of death. In 1940 he came to England, adopting the language with his first book, Scum of the Earth. His publications manifest a wide range of political, scientific and literary interests, and include Darkness at Noon, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing. He died in 1983 by suicide, having frequently expressed a belief in the right to euthanasia."

(from the frontispiece to The Invisible Writing)

Darkness at Noon is one of the best novels I've ever read, and certainly the most affecting in simultaneous political and personal terms. The story of Rubashov is equal to its significance to any individual tale of the Jewish Holocaust, or the actual Russian novels of Solzhenitsyn. It's an indictment of the Soviet state - as of all totalitarianism - and of the theory of Communism. Darkness at Noon forms the middle part of a progressive trio of 'invisible writing' begun while Koestler was still officialy affiliated with the Communist Party, with The Gladiators, a historical novel about the Spartacus rebellion in Ancient Rome (I'll admit that I haven't yet read the final work, Arrival and Departure).

The Invisible Writing is Koestler's memoir of that period, both in his personal life and in the tumultous political events of the 1930s. As the quote from the Observer on the back of the book states, it is "a brilliant and deeply moving record of a whole generation as well as of an individual". It was a generation of change, of charismatic but demagogic leaders, and of three conflicting ideologies: fascism, liberal democracy and socialism/communism. That last, the Left, was itself conflicted before, during and after the brief rise of the Popular Front in 1936, and it was this conflict that Koestler lived and wrote through. His European, twentieth-century and fundamentally critical perspective on 'socialism' provides an interesting bas relief for that last, most farcical part of the McCain campaign:

"Every period has its dominant religion and hope, and 'Socialism' in a vague and undefined sense was the hope of the early twentieth century. So much so that German 'National-Socialists', French 'Radical-Socialists', Italian 'Christian-Socialists' all felt the need to include the fetish-word into their names. In the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics this hope seemed to have found its incarnation; and the magic worked, and still works, with various degrees of intensity, on a considerable portion of mankind. The realisation of the full truth about the regime which now rules one-third of the world : that it is the most inhuman regime in human history and the gravest challenge that mankind has as yet encountered, is psychologically as difficult to face for most of us as an empty heaven was for a Gothic man. The difficulty is almost the same for the illiterate Italian peasant as for a highly literate French novelist like Sartre, or for a highly realistic politician like the late President Roosevelt - who sincerely believed that Stalin's regime was a kind of uncouth, Asiatic New Deal; and that after the war America would 'get on very well with Stalin and the Russian people', and that the only threat to post-war peace would come from Britain's imperialistic designs. That the great American President could believe this, in spite of all the available evidence about Communist theory and Soviet practice, that experienced democratic politicians all over the world could believe this, not to mention scientists, scholars and intellectuals of every variety, is an indication of the deep, myth-producing forces that were and still are at work."

The Invisible Writing, p. 475.


Cold War Kids, 'Against Privacy' from Loyalty to Loyalty (2008)

I haven't found out that much about Cold War Kids, either about their religious influences or which specific generation the name refers to. I was born in '87, so technically I was around for the last years of the Cold War, but I'm guessing it's more aimed at people who spent their whole childhood under the spectre of nuclear annihilation.

Pitchfork give their album from this year a middling 5.1; a marginal increase on the 5.0 for its predecessor, of which the review says: "With superficial storytelling, monolithic melodies, and the heavy-handed symbolism of a school project, Robbers and Cowards insults our intelligence a few times too often." I wouldn't be so inclined to defend the latter; apart from the instantly impressive 'We Used to Vacation', 'Hang Me Up to Dry', and 'Pregnant', the album kind of fell flat on me. However, the first single for Loyalty to Loyalty, 'Something Is Not Right with Me', caught my attention again. Though the album happily has a far more consistent quality to it, the single is not entirely representative of the new subtler, stripped-back sound. The off-key but beautifully expressive voice is still very much there, which might be a problem for some people (e.g. Pitchfork) but not for me.

Cold War Kids "carry a topicality absent in much of modern rock", which for Pitchfork is merely a mitigating circumstance:

"Opener "Against Privacy" somehow turns out to be heavy-handed about its opacity-- you can imagine it's about Republicans from the few lines that take, but it trips up on Willett‘s conspiratorial Yorke-isms ("Forget ex-girlfriends/ We want little governments") and a complete lack of a hook"

You can decide the last part for yourself, but I think it's a great song. As I said, compared to Robbers and Cowards it's much more understated. It opens with jazzy percussion and ethereal, muffled melodies, then leans towards propulsive rockiness and that wonderful clanging, metallic bass sound straight out of The Boom. And that's why I like this album so much - it feeds into a sort of an atypical, Left Americana that I hear in the more obscure - and arguably more authentic - sounds of The Boom, The Sorts, Just A Fire, Regulator Watts, etc. I don't know their exact ages, but I'm assuming that the members of Hoover were in or around their late teens early twenties in 92-94, which would make them (and most of their contemporay listeners) Cold War kids as well.

The other album that I was listening to throught last week was the latest album from The Gaslight Anthem, The '59 Sound. Again, another stunning single - the title track - but it took a recommendation from Worship and Tribute to make me actually listen to the album. The title track, and most of the album, is total but brilliant Bruce worship (they're from New Brunswick, NJ, by the way). There are slow songs that sound, vocally at least, a lot like the Killers, but contrary to expectations it actually works out very well. As Springsteen-esque pop-punk goes, this is better I think than the Hold Steady (who never gained my attention much beyond mentioning Sal Paradise in a, in hindsight, typically pretentious way) but not as good as the Bouncing Souls on either Anchors Aweigh or The Gold Record. It is appropriate, then, that those two albums can be relegated to history as statements of defiance and hope during the Bush era.


And finally to the internets, something which was never McCain's strong point. I should have added Organizing Grievances into the section above, because in addition to Cold War Kids and The Gaslight Anthem I was listening to Lex Dexter's Prisonship Tape: Formats EP mixtape: four songs of modern American rock, all of course left-wing approved; Teenage Fanclub, Prisonshake, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and the fascinating and quasi-Slintish The New Year, featuring guitarists Matt and Bubba Kadane of Bedhead, and Chris Brokaw, one-time member of Codeine, on drums.

And so on to, named after the number of delegates in the electoral college, my go-to place for polling, prediction and general 'poli-sci' - as you say in the States (or Sciences Po as they say in France) - information on the election. Run by Nate Silver, a professional baseball statistician, the site's purpose is: "Most broadly, to accumulate and analyze polling and political data in way that is informed, accurate and attractive. Most narrowly, to give you the best possible objective assessment of the likely outcome of upcoming elections." (from the FAQ and Statement of Methodology). Basically, it collates polling data, but on top of that it runs a whole series of statistical analyses culminating in a simulation, 10,000 times, to create a 'probabilistic assessment' of the elections outcome.

In the final set of predictions, of those 10,000 scenarios Obama won the popular vote in 98.67% of them, and McCain in 1.33% (and the outcome of McCain losing the popular vote but still winning the election, 0.31%). From the maps above, you can see how accurate their predictions were on a state-by-state basis, with only Indiana (and the Omaha district of Nebraska) being mispredicted, as a 'lean GOP' (Omaha was 'likely GOP'). Behind those graphics, of course, was a wealth of statistical information, openly presented and explained.

With those kinds of numbers, I really had no reason to stay up on Tuesday night. Irrationality and curiosity kept me up, while the news media continued to act like McCain had a chance (that is, a chance of more than 2%) of defeating Obama. People told me "well, Kerry was ahead in the polls last time"; BBC Newsnight went on a trip to Pennsylvania to talk to drive-time talk show hosts who said the state's blue-collar democrats resented Obama's gun control stance (guns being necessary for hunting, fishing and camping apparently - I get the first, but the other two?) and his "socialist, even communistic I would say" economic policies. And, in the end, that was all just a waste of time.

Hindsight is 20/20 (it's not actually, as any reading of conflicting history books will tell you) but that doesn't mean foresight is irrational. There's a 'Super Tracker' trend-line graph on 538, part of which - showing McCain last ahead in any of the polls sometime in September, and a steep climb and minor arc for Obama thereafter - reminds me of the 'hockey-stick' graph for man-made climate change; incontrovertible statistical evidence that events have gone one way, and only an impressive amount of spin can convince people otherwise.

Next up - New Beginnings: Part Two - Hoover, 'Side Car Freddie'/'Cable'


cretin said...

nice to see The '59 Sound get some love. I've had it for a couple of months now, and it's one of my favourites for this year. there's definitely an overlying musical theme of New Jerseyan Springsteen hero worship in there, and while it doesn't feel like much in terms of progression from Sink or Swim, the individual songs hold a lot more strength to them than on their debut.

lex dexter said...

New Jerseyan Springsteen hero worship is what made me the prancy little dandy i am today.

my first show was Bruce and E-Street Band on the "Born in the mothereffin USA" tour. I was either 5 or 6.

i'm all over this.