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Democracy is what finally makes America great (& Canada too etc, etc)

11 Jun

What does talk about democracy have to do with music and the arts — to say nothing of “REDISCOVERING MODERN JAZZ 1940–1970″?

For a starter try Woody Herman’s version of Aaron Copland’s 1942 classic, “Fanfare For The Common Man … An Anthem For The American Century.”

For the main course, according to a recent report on the CBC News site, “Democracy is in retreat” everywhere. An “annual ranking of 209 nations and territories, prepared by the US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, recorded an overall decline in global freedom for the 13th straight year.”

In the June 6, 2019 issue of The New York Review of Books, the British historian currently at Columbia University in New York, Adam Tooze, pondered a similar theme in “Democracy and Its Discontents” — a review of four recent books with such ominous titles as The People vs. Democracy, How Democracies Die, The Road to Unfreedom, and How Democracy Ends.

This spring has also revived the aggressively right-wing American concept urged by Donald Trump’s former Federal Reserve nominee Stephen Moore : “Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy.”

“Temporal Infrastructure,” 2019 — by Toronto artist Michael Seward.

(And yet when the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited and wrote about the early United States he admired — the side of the experiment that would soon fight a civil war to at least start to end African American slavery — he called his work Democracy in America [v1, 1835 ; v2, 1840]. “Capitalism” [or Das Kapital] was something the German intellectual Karl Marx would later criticize, researching and writing as a political refugee in London, England [v1, 1867, and then posthumously from Marx’s notes by Friedrich Engels, son of “an owner of large textile factories in Salford, England and … Barmen, Prussia,” v2, 1885 ; v3, 1894].)

No real-world democracy will ever be perfect

From the Norman Rockwell painting, 1958.

On one side of my own political consciousness, I suppose I naively wish for some vigorous pro-democracy push-back from at least one major side of American political culture.

I dislike Adam Tooze’s characterization of progressive debate in the USA today : “America’s revived left wing … does not doubt the disastrous consequences of the Trump presidency. Yet [for them]… he represents not a historic rupture but a continuity … Trump exposes starkly what the civility of Obama and his administration obscured—the subordination of American democracy to capitalism, patriarchy, and the iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.”

Of course, all this is true enough, on one level. It nonetheless ought to be possible to recognize the failings of Democracy in America, historical and contemporary, and at the same time still celebrate and revive the underlying democratic political energy that has recurrently made it possible for the USA to transcend these failings and move ahead.

“a sense of time passing,” 2019 — by Toronto artist Michael Seward.

No real-world democracy will ever be perfect. Humanity itself is too imperfect. But every serious democracy is always working to make itself more democratic. What has made the United States of America stand out since its Declaration of Independence in 1776 is not the cultivation of some unique version of “capitalism” (or “free market” economics). It is the opportunity at least some sides of American culture (and geography) have recurrently offered increasing shares of the broad mass of the sovereign people — to enjoy a degree of freedom, prosperity, and political participation heretofore largely unknown, for most human beings in most of world history.

Easier to think like this in Canada right now?

“Just the latest in a long string of practical Democracy in America incarnations that go back to 1776.”

The Obama administration from this perspective was not a practitioner of a “civility” that obscured the all too many ways in which democracy in America today is in fact subordinate to “capitalism, patriarchy, and the iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.”

President Obama’s government was just the latest in a long string of practical Democracy in America incarnations that go back to 1776. It was starting to define the latest, new and improved expression of the diverse democratic vision for an increasingly high technological 21st century.

The Trump administration is speaking for the side of the USA today that still fears this new and diverse democratic vision, and wants to return to some mythical past where, as Mr. Moore suggests, “Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy.” Yet in the end, to pursue this reactionary vision is ultimately to abandon the historic American destiny and purpose.

Two further observations from Adam Tooze in the June 6 New York Review of Books may help summarize the argument here.

First, he is almost certainly onto something when he writes : “The scope for a truly internationalist or cosmopolitan politics in the United States is limited.” But this is not what the Obama administration promoted. President Obama was still talking about a Democracy in and of America — albeit one that includes Native Americans, women, and African Americans like he and his wife and children, that reaches out to a new Asian America like his Hawaiian birthplace, and that probably has somewhat more to do with the California which was once part of Mexico than with the legendary Anglo Protestant Middle West.

“the unreliability of an infallible memory,” 2019 — by Toronto artist Michael Seward.

Second, Mr. Tooze suggests in his conclusion that “the most pressing question of the present” is : “Assuming current trends continue, will America accept its relative decline with equanimity?

Yet America’s “relative decline” is only something bound to happen (as the gross domestic product of the much more populous China and perhaps ultimately India too grows and grows), if capitalism actually is “a lot more important than democracy.”

If democracy finally is the crucial American value, the sky for expansion is still vast and much unexplored. (Well … I am in fact a Canadian. And it may be easier to think like this in Canada right now than it is in the USA. I’m not sure at the moment. I’m waiting to see what happens in the Canadian federal election this coming October 21.)

Ornithology today : looking for light in new dark times?

9 May

Charlie Parker had a vast appetite for all forms of human experience, including food.

TORONTO, CANADA. MAY 9, 12, 2019. “Birdhop” started quite a while ago, as the “culture” (and especially music) companion of a much more political website.

It had some time online as “BIRDHOP — Rediscovering Modern Jazz, 1940–1970.” But then in a more general technological update, it was cast adrift as the political preoccupations of the companion site seemed to grow more urgent.

Now, when the urge to escape from what increasingly seem like potential new political dark times ahead (maybe) finds itself combining with our increasing age, we (or should it just be I?) aspire to some fresh, new cut at Birdhop. (Possibly with half a political edge, but gently, lightly? Too much of politics today is just too mean-spirited.)

Charlie Parker, recording star!

This view of democracy in North America 2019 aspires to somehow fit at least part of the very broad view bequeathed by the late great Charlie Parker, whose nickname was “Bird” — and to whom Birdhop is meant as some kind of tribute, in the age of hip hop and all that … and far beyond.

The end of it all may be yet another imperfect set of notes on the Charles Parker Jr who was born in Kansas City in 1920 and died in New York in 1955.

And this raises the question : why is Charlie Parker so interesting in 2019, even if you are not deeply into either the alto saxophone or the story of modern jazz?

Charlie Parker Quintet at The Royal Roost, 1580 Broadway, New York City, 18 December 1948.”

The shortest answer, I think, is just that Charlie Parker (1920–1955) is at least one of the great antidotes modern American culture has, to the at once destructive and retrogressive fake political philosophy of Donald Trump — who apparently to his own as much as many others’ astonishment is now serving as President of the USA today.

Charlie Parker with Strings — 1949 recordings once thought not really hip, but more recently appreciated by fresh ears.

(In a Canadian province that elected a somewhat Trumpian government with just over 40% of the popular vote last June we also know first hand that the more general problem is not confined to US geography. And see : “Canada Is Going Conservative.” Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may just manage a minority government in this year’s October 21 Canadian federal election, or worse.)

Charlie Parker (l) and his shrewder, more professional colleague in the legendary invention of modern jazz, Dizzy Gillespie (r) at Birdland in New York City, 1950.

One sign of Charlie Parker’s unique cultural power (still largely unappreciated in most versions of mainstream media America?) is that the iconic hard-edged conservative Clint Eastwood (“I tried being reasonable, but I didn’t like it”) felt driven to make a Hollywood biography of Parker in the 1988 movie, “Bird.”

Eastwood himself has been a critic of Obama and a supporter of Trump. And the view of Charlie Parker offered in “Bird”, while respectful in some ways, is too negatively focused on the struggling side of a musical genius addicted to heroin since the age of 15. It underplays Parker’s great artistic and intellectual confidence and warm democratic humanity.

At Apollo Records studio in New York City, c. 1953. The horn line at the right-hand side of the photo includes (left to right) Dexter Gordon on tenor sax, Buck Clayton on trumpet, and Charlie Parker on alto.

Yet if Clint Eastwood was uncomfortable with Barack Obama as an American president, “Bird” at least shows how one iconic conservative supporter of the present-day US Republican party does understand that the unique and inevitably tormented but also buoyant African American experience has made an authentic and unmistakable contribution to American democratic culture in its broadest sense.

At home at 151 Avenue B in Manhattan in Charlie Parker’s later life. “It was really wonderful to walk with Bird,” his stepdaughter Kim (right) has reported. “He was really dignified.”

Clint Eastwood would no doubt not see the “Yardbird Suite” brilliant short life of Charlie Parker from 1920 to 1955 as one ultimate antidote to and even salvation from the hopefully even much, much shorter presidency of Donald Trump, and all its deeper complexities. That understanding may have been pioneered by Jack Kerouac (from a French Canadian family in Lowell, Massachusetts ) in his 1957 novel, On the Road. It is in any case a key article of faith for this aspiring fresh, new cut at a Birdhop website today — as what subsequently appears in this space will at least try to illuminate, over the more immediate future that hopefully lies not too darkly ahead.

MORE TO COME …